Loss of Innocence by Stephen Cone

Stephen Cone presents the entire history of his company’s efforts in Vietnam in Loss of Innocence: A History of Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in Vietnam (FriesenPress, 373 pp, $28.99, hardcover; $19.99 paper). The 7th Marines fought against well-armed VC and NVA, mostly in the northern, coastal mountains of I Corps.

Stay with Cone and, if you were in the Army, you’ll learn just how good you had it. These guys were chewed up again and again from 1965 through their last days in country in 1970.

But staying with Cone is the problem. He reports every action, every movement of Hotel Company. While this can only have resulted from obsessive research, the details of every injury from a punji stake, every friendly fire incident resulting in a wound—even every death—makes it difficult for the reader to get a sense of the larger picture.

Many pages go by in the bare-bones style of after-action reports. Cone’s portrait is an effective one of a tough group of men who endured untold suffering, but went in circles, encountering the same enemy, receiving the same wounds. Of course, this could be a metaphor for the entire war.

Stephen Cone

An exception: Cone had no use for the ARVN units the 7th Marines often maneuvered with. He shows how ARVN ineffectiveness and ARVN cowardice often got Marines killed. Even on the ARVN question, however, Cone just reports; he doesn’t really opine.

There’s also a lot of Semper Fi here. Cone is reluctant to say anything negative about fellow Marines. In fact, he’s reluctant to say much of anything about individuals. Along with his research, the backbone of his history is the testimony of his fellow Marines, but he offers few anecdotes, and very little dialogue. Personalities seldom emerge.

Sometimes, he offers a gem of a detail, such as his account of a Marine who, lacking stationery, tore off the top of a C-ration box, wrote his letter there, and scribbled “Free” in the corner.

Fairly often, going a long way toward saving his book, Cone recalls a humorous incident. For instance, there’s the platoon, done in with thirst, awaiting a delivery of water. Instead, a helicopter hovers and drops one small box. What is it? Some Marine calls out: a box of cigars for the commander.

Cone doesn’t claim to be a professional writer; instead he offers up his reliability as a historian. His book is fine source material for other writers, and it seems to be rigorously truthful. But it’s pretty dry for anyone except perhaps Marines from the Seventh. Cone has written them a love letter.

—John Mort