The Good Captain
A Personal Memoir of America at War
R. D. Hooker Jr.
Casemate, Philadelphia, 2022, 298 pages
Book Review published on: January 27, 2023
The personal memoir is a unique genre. Perhaps the best way to summarize the genre is to modify a quote from Forrest Gump’s mother: memoirs are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. Personally, I find that the two characteristics that are always in doubt are the quality of the memoir’s content and its readability. Most often, I get a memoir rich in content but not written well, or is lacking in content but is engaging to read. Occasionally, I find a memoir that is abundant in content and is extremely readable. That was clearly the case with R. D. Hooker Jr.’s outstanding memoir, The Good Captain: A Personal Memoir of America at War.
To achieve the first quality, rich in content, it certainly is a tremendous benefit if an author has intriguing and interesting life experiences to draw upon. Hooker truly possesses those experiences. As you read the volume, you find the author was involved or participated in nearly every key military campaign, action, or event during his long U.S Army career (1975–2010). It was truly an impressive career and provided him exceptional opportunities and perspectives to share.
Hooker highlights the quantity and quality of his deployments and experiences in the book’s forward. He states, “In a long military career, I found myself at the center of great events occasioned by the breakup of the Soviet Union, and by 9/11. Over thirty-two years of military service as a soldier and officer of parachute infantry, I served all over the world in peace and war; in the invasion of Grenada; in Somalia in humanitarian crisis and tribal strife; in Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the genocide; with the first American unit to enter Bosnia and the first to enter Kosovo; as a peacekeeper in the Sanai desert; as a witness to the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, at the height of the war in Iraq and, at the end of my career, with my son in Afghanistan” (ix).
Within his memoir, Hooker touches on all those experiences as well as addressing his assignments within the White House and the Pentagon. During his career, he served as a White House staff member in four administrations and held several advisor roles in the Pentagon. These included serving as the special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senior aide to the secretary of the Army, special assistant to the chief of staff of the Army, and director for Iraq in the National Security Council. The combination of these “beltway” assignments with the aforementioned “muddy boots” deployments is powerful. In total, they clearly afford Hooker the experiences to draw upon to craft a valuable memoir.
With the content obviously there to set the conditions, it was up to Hooker to articulate and organize it in a manner which readers would find beneficial and appealing. The author has accomplished this within his memoir. This is a highly readable volume that is hard to put down. Hooker achieves this significant degree of readability for several reasons that I will discuss below.
First, The Good Captain is crafted in an extremely conversant style. I feel that in any memoir it is imperative that it is written in this conversational design. This enables the “personal” characteristic which should surround a “personal” memoir. Hooker has crafted one of those select books in which you are not only reading his words but also hearing them as well.
Second is Hooker’s ability to convey a wide range of emotions throughout the memoir. An excellent example of this is exhibited in his discussion of his retirement ceremony found late in the volume. He reflects, “A few weeks later, I stood in front of a room full of family, friends, and classmates at the Army Navy Club. As they read out my retirement orders, I couldn’t help but feel flooded with memories. Many were painful, but even more I felt grateful. I stood before the crowd, trying to say something memorable, but at a loss. For 36 years, I had worn a uniform, traveled the world, and attempted hard and difficult things, always in the company of wonderful men and women. I knew I would miss them deeply. We had not always succeeded, but we had done our best to save lives, to keep the peace, to do the right thing, and to serve faithfully as we could. It was enough. It was more than enough. That night, I was conscious of many successes, but also failures and defeats. I had come farther than I expected, and perhaps deserved, the consequences of both virtues and flaws bound up in the same man” (277).
Third is the tremendous insight Hooker provides throughout his memoir. Whether addressing his deployments or time spent at the White House and the Pentagon, this keen insight is a common thread that runs throughout. As addressed earlier, Hooker served in many diverse assignments presenting him access to key events that took place in his career. He shares his insight and perspectives on these events. In doing so, he addresses a wide variety of subjects ranging from tactical and operational operations to strategic and policy decisions.
Fourth is Hooker’s skill at weaving “war stories” in the volume. Anyone who has served in the military has collected their own share of “war stories.” In over three decades of service, Hooker obviously has many to select from. In his memoir, he has selected ones that run the emotional gamut for him. Additionally, he has chosen many, which he utilizes to perfectly transition to different subject areas
Finally, Hooker’s candidness displays throughout the memoir. To use a trusted cliché, he does not pull any punches in his volume. He is free in his criticism of others, but just as free in his praise of others. That extends to himself as well. I also found Hooker’s candidness to be very balanced. Many times, you find memoirs that are exceedingly weighted in negativity. That is not the case in this memoir.
I believe The Good Captain will be many things to many people. For some, it is a soldier reflecting on his service to the nation in a variety of roles and environments. To others, it will be a concise military history following the Vietnam War to the first decade of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still others will find this as a meaningful and thought-provoking perspective on decision-making and policy formation at the highest level. Finally, there are those who will find The Good Captain to be a fitting tribute to the many soldiers who played such a role in the author’s career.
Hooker refers to the soldiers he served with throughout his memoir. One of the best illustrations of his admiration is found in his discussion of the purpose of the memoir, found early in the volume. He states, “At the top and in the trenches, our wars taught me much, but above all about American combat soldiers. Profane, independent, stubborn, and aggressive, they are also warm-hearted, intelligent, selfless, and always, always brave. As Churchill famously said, ‘Courage is the first of all virtues, because it enables all the rest.’ He was right. This, then, is my story, and theirs” (ix).
In summary, for those looking for a memoir to read, I have picked though this box of chocolates and can tell you exactly what you’ll get. You will get a memoir rich in content based on the author’s captivating career. You will get a memoir that is expertly written and engaging throughout. Finally, you will get a memoir, which I consider one of the best I have read in many years.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Rick Baillergeon, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas