Some time past, I indicated I would be posting reviews of books I have been reading. I have been reading, slowly, but I have not really done a good job with the reviews. My old perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good problem.
This past May, I read an obituary in the Washington Post of a Marine named Edwin Simmons. I will not repeat any of it here, apart from this one line which caught my eye:
He also wrote a novel, “Dog Company Six” (2001), which Leatherneck magazine called “the best autobiographical novel to come out of the Korean War.”
With a reference like that, how could I not hop over to Amazon and buy a copy? Exactly.
I finally read it this week, and it was an interesting book. For no good reason, I had been expecting a book about Marines in combat, and while that does take place in the course of the book, the actual combat is not the focus at all. The narrator, Bayard, is a reserve captain, recalled to duty at the start of the Korean War, where he is assigned to the unit for which the book is titled. Much of the tension throughout this book builds on Bayard’s reserve status, and how that sits with the career Marines with whom he serves.
Rather than give away anything, I will say that the book is a very human, detailed look at command, at leadership, and at American culture in the decades leading up towards Korea. More than anything, what struck me about the book was how subtle and unexpected it was, and how that flies in the face of the larger-than-life, anything-but-subtle image that so many people hold of the Marines (and that at least some Marines hold of themselves, I suppose). Simmons’s work casts light on a side of the Marines that is too often overlooked, and I suspect that is why Leatherneck magazine spoke so well of it.
If what the reader wants is a shoot ’em up about Inchon and Chosin, this is not that book. If, on the other hand, the reader wants to see a vivid slice of life of a Marine rifle company, of the dynamics among the officers, the NCOs, and the men, and of the effect of leadership on the leader, then you will find this a rewarding, nuanced book worth your time.