I recently asked a well-read friend to name the one book, scriptures excluded, that he would recommend I read. I find that this is a good way to gain exposure to powerful, thought-provoking books that I would otherwise overlook. His answer surprised me then and still does today; We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. This is the historical book upon which the Mel Gibson movie, We Were Soldiers, is based. Neither I nor my friend have seen the movie but I decided with some trepidation to read the book.
I say “some trepidation” because there are some epochs of recent history that require some personal resolve to revisit again and again. For example, reading stories about the Holocaust require that I brace myself emotionally for what I am going to experience. Likewise, 9-11 is a raw nerve straight to my heart. The Vietnam War is another topic that takes an emotional toll on me. In college I took an elective course called “Vietnam War Literature” where, for a semester, I was immersed in the fictional writings from the hell that was Vietnam. This was back in 1984 when the movie Platoon won the best picture Oscar. For those of you who have seen that movie, imagine reading book after book with the same basic storyline; that was my semester. So I approached We Were Soldiers Once…And Young with a fear of re-opening some old wounds.
Although I was born in the army, my father was discharged before I was a year old and I have never been particularly interested in the military or warfare. I am as unqualified as possible to review a non-fiction book about a specific battle during the Vietnam war.
The battle in question is Ia Drang; a series of conflicts fought in the forests of the Ia Drang Valley over a course of a month. In the end 305 American and 3,561 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed and many more wounded. It was one of the first significant battles in the war and prompted Defense Secretary McNamara to confide to reporters that “it will be a long war.” Moore and Galloway are not after-the-fact historians; they were both on the ground as either commander (Moore) or imbedded reporter (Galloway). The primary narrative is Moore’s while Galloway’s voice (presumably the actual author) is hidden in the background.
The evolution of the “calvary” is an important theme in this book. For Vietnam, the horse was replaced by the helicopter as the the mode of transport for the modern army. The helicopter added true mobility to the fighting force; strike, destroy and retreat. It made battle lines obsolete. U.S. soldiers could attack anywhere in enemy territory; at least anywhere that the politicians allowed. Moore and Galloway describe how the army prepared to use this new technology, the intense training involved and the advantage it provided over the enemy and the North Vietnamese strategies for combating U.S. troop mobility.
But the heart of the story is a complete recounting of two major battles in the Ia Drang Valley. The first battle began almost immediately as Moore and his battalion (approximately 450 men) entered the Ia Drang Valley at Landing Zone “X-Ray.” Spotted almost immediately by several thousand North Vietnamese soldiers, Moore’s soldiers found themselves in a horrific fight for survival that lasted several days. The Vietnamese withdrew temporarily and so Moore’s soldiers were able to return to camp. Their replacements, however, were not as lucky. The second battle was centered at another Landing Zone, Albany, and the U.S. took more serious casualties with entire squads being decimated.
While both sides felt like they had won the battle; it was for different reasons. In terms of “kill ratio,” the U.S. had scored an overwhelming victory with only 1 American dead to every 12 North Vietnamese dead. For the North Vietnamese, however, they felt as if they had fought the Americans to a stand still and this had given their soldiers hope that they could conquer the more technologically advanced enemy. In the end, the North Vietnamese logic proved the most correct. Just like the French they had fought earlier, patience, perseverance and political commitment allowed them to outlast the Americans. As the book points out, few of us realize that the ultimate cost in Vietnamese lives was well over a million.
One of the book’s strengths is also its greatest weakness. Moore and Galloway attempt to provide as complete a picture of these two battles as possible. This means that they take into account as many perspectives as possible including commanders, support staff, soldiers, helicopter pilots, bombadiers, and even the enemy commanders. Whenever possible, every U.S. soldier’s death is memorialized and described so that we truly understand the sacrifice given. Ultimately we are shown each of these battles from the perspectives of a number of different squads. I found the final portrait both complete, fascinating and eye opening. The authors allowed me to become a witness to these battles; at least from the point of view of an American.
But this is also one of the greatest weaknesses of the book. Professionally, I am a market researcher and often write reports from qualitative studies. A strategy I employ to write these reports is to highlight transcripts of interviews with my subjects, “cut out” the highlighted quotes, and physically organize these quotes by topic. I find that I can only use 1/3rd of the quotes that I originally highligted or else my report becomes overburdened. In their desire to be complete, Moore and Galloway interviewed hundreds of participants in the battle of Ia Drang. In my opinion, they rely too heavily on these quotes at the sacrifice of the crispness and flow of their narrative.
As I think back about the books that I read during my college course on Vietnam and this book, I realize that one thing that has changed is my own personal a priori assumptions about Vietnam and our participation in that war. As a sheltered college junior who had never ventured outside of four western states, I felt pride that America was willing to stand with and defend the South Vietnamese people. As a still sheltered but a little more traveled father of 6, I harbor few illusions that the American people ever truly cared or loved the Vietnamese people. American lives were always more important than Vietnamese lives. So my personal approach to We Were Soldiers Once…And Young was one of sadness. Many American and Vietnamese soldiers gave the ultimate sacrifice in the Ia Drang Valley but I am just not sure for whom they made this sacrifice. I give the book 4 stars.