May 16, 2023

Before Michael Lee Lanning ’68 ever set foot in Vietnam in 1969, he was connected to the war through his brother, Jim ’64, who also served. Though Jim didn’t have much to say on the war, he believed Lanning would.

“My brother told me to keep a journal of my time there,” said Lanning, who served from April 1969 to April 1970, beginning his tour as an infantry platoon leader and later becoming a reconnaissance platoon leader and rifle company commander. “He thought I could make valuable observations.”

That piece of advice started Lanning on an odyssey that has led to roughly 30 books authored or co-authored, more than one million copies sold, and countless thanks from veterans who had trouble explaining their experience and found solace in one who could.

Boots on the Ground

For Lanning, his time in Vietnam was a defining experience. “Many people have thoughts about Vietnam,” he said. “I don’t agree with a decent amount of the viewpoints. By the time I was 22 years old, I commanded 140 men in combat. We fought hard, and we fought for our country proudly. I feel the bravery gets lost in certain moments of horror that are portrayed, and a lot is left out that would give a much more nuanced view.”

One thing he can agree on is that the terrain was tough, the water he trudged through was at times difficult and the jungle was heavy. “An easy time, it was not,” he said. “We found ourselves in dense, mountainous jungles that had not been penetrated by anyone except for us and the opposing forces in so many years. But I fought with men far braver than me. You help each other through it.”

Lanning was one of many Aggies who served and sacrificed during the war. “Some don’t realize that 110 people from the school died in combat and another 100 not directly related to combat,” he said. “We had some of the largest casualties of any school.”

His service turned into a 20-year career in the U.S. Army, including positions as a public affairs officer for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the mid-’80s and as a member of the Department of Defense public affairs office, retiring with a rank of lieutenant colonel.

Michael Lee Lanning '68 served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, eventually becoming a reconnaissance platoon leader and rifle company commander. His experiences in the war later led him to his writing career. (Photos provided by Michael Lee Lanning)

From Warrior to Wordsmith

During the tail end of his military service, Lanning attempted another vocation on the side that would later give him the confidence to switch careers.

“I had my journals from the war, and when I got back, I tried to write the great American novel,” he said. “I wrote a couple chapters, trying to mimic some combination of Larry McMurtry, Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens. It didn’t work, and I focused on my military career. Years later, I gave it another try, but this time I just stuck to nonfiction. That was the key. As a starting point, I used the letters I had written my wife, parents and brother when in Vietnam. I hoped to give someone the idea of a year of a tour. Even though it was 15 years later, so much was as vivid as if had been yesterday.”

When Lanning was halfway through, he sent what he had to publishing giant Random House. “Eventually, I had double what they wanted to publish, so they ended up giving me advances for two books,” he said. “I was on my way.”

His first offering put him on the New York Times military bestseller list, and his third book, “Inside the LRRPs: Rangers in Vietnam,” became his most successful, selling approximately 150,000 copies. Since then, he has grown his bibliography to roughly 30 books, spanning subjects from the Revolutionary War and Vietnam to non-military topics like sports. Several of his books were published by the Texas A&M University Press, including “Texas Aggies in Vietnam,” which celebrates his Texas A&M roots by sharing war stories from Aggies who fought in Vietnam.

His works have garnered praise, and the New York Times Book Review declared his book “Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal” to be “…one of the most honest and horrifying accounts of a combat soldier’s life to come out of the Vietnam War.” He has also appeared on major television networks and the History Channel as an expert on the individual soldier on both sides of the Vietnam War.

Lanning, who currently lives in Lampasas, Texas, and is originally from Sylvester, Texas, considers his strongest writing quality to be his skill turning a mountain of information into shorter hard-hitting words of impact. “I can stare down a piece of paper and keep going,” he explained. “Many authors have trouble with that. And I don’t try to aggrandize myself with my writing style. It may even be boring in some places, but war sometimes is boring. I’m proudest when I get a call or email saying, ‘I was in the 101st, and that’s just like it was.’”

Published in 15 countries, he’s proud of his place among Aggie authors. “I think I’m the bestselling Aggie writer in military nonfiction,” he added. “As an Aggie, I feel very proud to have excelled at this.”

Aggie Preparation

Lanning looks back on his time with the Corps of Cadets as training him well for the service, his writing career and life overall. “It couldn’t have been any better. Discipline, loyalty and respect were leading qualities I learned,” said Lanning, whose father also attended Texas A&M. “The Corps taught you a sense of accomplishment and prepared you to be a leader for many facets.”

And the writing life is still a facet he covets. “I get up in the morning and just start writing,” he said. “I’ve already thought about what I will write, I’ve done the research and I’m ready to go on it. I’m still very motivated.”

Lanning, who won the 1995 Red Catcher Military Writer of Excellence Award, was also proud to contribute many of his notes to Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives. “Eventually, I think I’ll give them everything,” he said. “I hope 100 years from now, people can look at my work and get a clear sense of what happened from someone who was there and who served with some truly, truly brave people.”

Passionate about providing the next generation with leadership opportunities like Lanning received? The Corps of Cadets is devoted to upholding Texas A&M’s reputation as a top-tier institution, as well as its time-honored traditions. To expand this impact, the university’s new “March to 3,000” campaign will grow the Corps to 3,000 members and enhance the overall Texas A&M experience for all students. To learn more about supporting this initiative and future cadets with a scholarship, contact Kelly Corcoran '95 through the form below.