The Reluctant General
Billy R. Cooper
Xlibris, 208 pages, (paperback), $19.99, 9781465345837
(Reviewed: December, 2011)

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.



Autobiography of an African-American soldier who rose from lowly private to brigadier general. Cooper’s life did not get off to an auspicious start. After a hard-scrabble childhood in 1950s Texas, at age 20 he was a college dropout, working construction and expecting a baby. Then he was suddenly drafted into the Army. It was here that other soldiers saw in him the makings of a future leader. When his boots hit the ground in Vietnam in 1969, he was already a lieutenant whose job took him into the jungle to help direct artillery fire against the enemy. Cooper would take on greater leadership roles during a 33-year career that earned him a general’s star on each shoulder. In a swift, economical style befitting a soldier, Cooper recounts his journey from being raised in a poor black family to holding key military assignments in Germany, the Pentagon, Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Along the way, he displays a talent for finding life lessons in improbable places. A thirsty plow mule that refused to move until he got a drink taught Cooper to always take care of the ones who actually do the work. The college president who dismissed Cooper in person for poor grades taught him that “good leaders do the tough stuff.” While the book sometimes reads like a military résumé, Cooper bravely discusses a number of personal shortcomings, allowing readers to see the accomplished officer also has a sense of humor. Whether confronting racism or being passed over for promotion, the author attempts to find the good in every situation. Unfortunately, the book is silent about any difficulties Cooper experienced transitioning out of Army life, concluding instead with a curious “To Be Continued.” It is also jargon-heavy, which could be tough for non-military readers to swallow. But anyone aspiring to be a leader—military or civilian—will find nuggets of wisdom in Cooper’s recollections.

An inspiring story of how a positive attitude and hard work can overcome mountains of adversity, as told through the life of an unlikely general.


ForeWord Clarion Review
MEMOIR - The Reluctant General
Billy R. Cooper
Three Stars (out of Five)

“I had been all that I could be in the Army,” writes retired Brigadier General Billy R. Cooper, with evident pride and satisfaction, in his memoir The Reluctant General. For this poor, African-American farm boy from Texas, the army was more than a career; being drafted to serve in Vietnam was, as he notes, one of those “miracles” that “are disguised as adversity,” and one that allowed him to realize the American Dream.

Earn it he did. He learned early on that “there is honor in hard work,” and that an education is “the one thing nobody can take away from you.” Through hard work, Cooper attained honors and rank that had once been unavailable to men of his race and background.

Cooper writes honestly and emotionally about his youth, especially of the hardworking grandparents who raised him on a farm with no running water and the mother who later reclaimed him and brought him to Dallas for his teen years. His recollections of growing up black in the segregated South in the 1950s and early 1960s are no less poignant for their similarity to stories told by others of his age group. They make Cooper’s rise from drop out to draftee to general, over the course of thirty-three years, even more dramatic and inspiring.

His march from private’s chevron to brigadier’s star began when a sergeant in boot camp observed that, “Private Cooper, you are never going to be happy as an enlisted man.” Fast-tracked through the “shake and bake” course to sergeant and then onto Officer Candidate School, Cooper was catapulted to the rank of lieutenant in near-record time. And then he was sent to Vietnam. His chapters on the war are perhaps the best in the book, especially the section in which he remembers a fallen comrade. Every time he visits the Vietnam Memorial, he touches that soldier’s name engraved on the dark wall.

Through no fault of his own, the second half of Cooper’s book does not live up to the first half. After Vietnam, his career in the service makes for rather dull reading, save for a whirlwind diplomatic tour of East Africa and the Middle East on the eve of the first Gulf War. Cooper tries to make subsequent tours with peace-time artillery units, research commands, and Pentagon offices interesting, bringing up humorous anecdotes such as the one about the “great Frito incident of 1974.”

While many readers may be tempted to fall away in the latter half of this short work, those who soldier on will come away with a good feeling for the man and his accomplishments. It may not attract a large audience, but, at the very least, The Reluctant General should serve as an inspiration to the author’s children and to anyone who fears that a humble beginning or prejudice will keep them from attaining the American Dream.

~ Mark G. McLaughlin


5.0 out of 5 stars A Great American- My Favorite Boss, January 30, 2012
Richard A. Jeffries "Rich J" (Smyrna, TN USA) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Reluctant General (Paperback)
When I discovered my former Brigade Commander had written a book, I had to read it. Billy Cooper was my Brigade Commander for two years in the 214th Field Artillery Brigade at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was fortunate to be his Brigade Operations Officer and Executive Officer throughout his command tenure. General Cooper may admit to being a Reluctant General, but he was a great mentor and leader to many.

The book is just like the man and commander I knew. It is insightful, pertinent, humorous, and above all accurate from the heart of a man who gave everything his all. His anecdotes have as much relevance today as they did when they occured to him. There are many lesson to be learned from reading this book about how to properly treat people, leadership in military, business and life situations, and how to seize the opportunities in everything life has to offer. The book is written in a free-flowing, comfortable style that is never preachy or heavy handed. As a career Army officer myself, I found the telling of his accomplishments and adventures brought back vivid memories of my own career (while mine was not nearly so adventurous as his). If you read this book and learn any lessons from it, imagine the impact it had on me and everyone who worked for and with Billy Cooper on a daily basis. Thanks Sir.

You should get a copy of this book, read it, use his examples and realize this is the kind of American Hero our country produces on a regular basis. It's just that not enough of us get to experience it first hand. I fortunately did, not reluctantly, but with zeal.