One can't help but compare The Crouching Beast to Karl Marlantes's acclaimed novel Matterhorn. There are differences, of course: Marlantes writes about the Marines, Boccia about the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Matterhorn takes place just south of Vietnam's DMZ, The Crouching Beast farther south in the A Shau Valley. Perhaps the most notable difference is that the Marlantes account of combat in Vietnam is fiction with all its freedoms of expression and imaginations whereas Frank Boccia's memoir is limited to the truth and to his own experience. Still, it's memoir as intensely riveting in its truth as any combat fiction you're likely to come across.
Frank Boccia arrived in country and reported to his unit as a young, inexperienced lieutenant. In some respects it follows the familiar arc of refining skills while moving inexorably toward harrowing experiences in his future. The book covers 7 months of his Vietnam tour.
I puzzled over, while reading, the lack of reflection. Boccia is intelligent and attentive, writes sensitively about the men under him. He writes descriptively about what it was like to campaign in those valleys and along the ridges above them. You learn what it was like to drop by helicopter into a landing zone or what it was like to have to endure one of Vietnam's violent thunderstorms while on patrol. This is writing good enough to put you right there with him. However, he doesn't record wondering about the North Vietnamese. He's a young man new at the war, but he doesn't mention wondering about what contact with them will be like. And he doesn't wonder about his place in the unit's mission, especially what Frank Boccia will be like under fire when they finally contact the North Vietnamese. He displays the confidence of a young Army officer but doesn't give the reader any sense of the anxieties which he must have felt about the dangers to come and how he'd perform under the stress of combat and its responsibilities. Again, a reader of this and the highly autobiographical Matterhorn can't help but compare young Boccia to the rich interiors of Lt. Melas that Marlantes gives us.
The 2d half of Boccia's memoir is taken up with a baptismal action at Hill 1485 and his part in the much larger sweep by 3d Brigade into the A Shau Valley and the controversial assaults to take what came to be known as Hamburger Hill. You won't learn much about the actual course of the 11-day battle. Boccia's telling of it is limited to Bravo Company's part, though it's searing and fascinating reading. From start to finish this is a compelling read, but especially on Hamburger Hill.
If one can find a damaging criticism of the book, it's that it needs maps. They would have added a graphic illumination and clarity to the narrative. This is most true in the long account of the assaults on Hamburger Hill. It's difficult to picture the swirling movements of Boccia's elements in that chaotic terrain without some visual aid.
But though the book lacks maps, it's full of courage and the "nobility of spirit" Boccia said he wanted to convey to readers. It's a gritty description of what Vietnam was like for a young Airborne officer. It's a gritty page-turner of a read.