When it came to war, my late father, who was a World War II U.S. Navy combat photographer in the Pacific, used to say that the one thing that was almost impossible to describe to anyone who had not been there was the smell. Franklin Cox, who had served as a U.S. Marine forward observer in Vietnam, would probably have agreed, because that is one thing he tries to do in Lullabies for Lieutenants, a series of vignettes collected into a memoir of his 13 months in-country from 1965 to 1966, along with a few retrospective observations from “The World.”

Cox does a fine job documenting his chronology and his units (American and Communist), but it is at the visceral, not the intellectual level, that his writing stands out, as he conveys the sights, sounds, odors, heat, sweat, fatigue and fear that all have their effect on the author and his comrades-in-arms. In one passage, Cox goes all-out in praising the training, tradition and quasi-religious devotion to the Corps that he believes makes Marines unique in the military world. In most of his Vietnam stories, however, he reveals that the Marines are all too human—with individuals displaying incompetence and sometimes cowardice in the face of the extraordinary challenges they face, even as others heroically meet and prevail over them.

Of some significance, in regard to the war’s ultimate outcome, is the contempt Cox expresses for his ally in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, “Marvin the ARVN,” who he condemns as “shiftless and undisciplined, stealing livestock from those they were protecting, disengaging from first contact with the enemy….”

Well aware of all it implies, the author adds, “The irony is how much we respected and were actually enthralled by the courage of Marvin’s brother, Victor Charlie, our enemy in black.”

Covering one man’s opinions, the right to which was earned in the course of one man’s war, Lullabies for Lieutenants is an evocative addition to the literature that gives posterity glimpses at both the “big picture” and the many tiny facets that make up the Vietnam War. Agree with the author or not, it makes for a compelling read.

McFarland Publishers, 2010