Blacks in the mid-’50s who lived in poverty in the Texas flatlands had two paths they could walk. They could absorb racial slurs and discrimination and become bitter. Or they could assume the attitude author Billy Cooper learned from his grandparents: work hard, be positive and aim for the top. Cooper’s memoir, The Reluctant General, shows how he took the latter path to rise through the ranks of the Army to become a Brigadier General at age 48.
Cooper was a straight arrow; he followed rules, went to church, made excellent grades. When his parents divorced, he and one brother lived with their maternal grandparents, Maw and Paw. Working hard on his grandparents’ farm and listening to their wisdom greatly influenced Cooper, who won a full scholarship to prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. There, he made one of the few mistakes of his life: he drank, neglected his studies and was ultimately tossed out.
It was a shattering wake-up call. He allowed himself no excuses, returned to Texas, found jobs and began saving money. Soon he married his high-school sweetheart and, drafted in 1969, was off to Vietnam. The Army’s structure proved perfect for him, and he was selected for Officer Candidate School.
During his service, he ran into racism. When a white soldier told Cooper he’d never seen a “nigger” before, for instance, Cooper replied that he still hadn’t. Call me Negro or black, he said, but he’d prefer to be called “soldier.” He doesn’t linger on such incidents but rather on the lessons he learned and the good men he met.
Cooper’s writing is curt and bare bones, and the narrative is strewn with Army jargon and acronyms. The title is misleading — it’s a throwaway line from a man who never seemed reluctant at all.
Despite such flaws, this is an enjoyable, inspiring read. Every American could benefit from learning about Cooper’s childhood and his achievements during his 30-plus Army career.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.