REMEMBER THE ‘60s? : THE WAR : WE WERE SOLDIERS ONCE . . . AND YOUNG: Ia Drang--The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, <i> By Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway (Random House: $25; 412 pp.)</i>
Courage is the currency of war. It is the last full measure of devotion soldiers give to their comrades and to their country. Good leaders spend it wisely.
In November, 1965, along the Ia Drang River in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, American soldiers met their North Vietnamese enemy in large numbers for the first time in the war. In four days of combat worse than its older warriors had seen in World War II and Korea, 234 Americans and many hundreds of their Vietnamese enemy died. Courage there was, in great supply, some of it wisely spent. But much more was squandered. The battles were like the long war that followed them: great heroism wasted by incompetent leaders for uncertain purpose.
The battles of the Ia Drang contain all the elements for a great book, but--in spite of the resourcefulness of its reporting and the raw emotion within some of its accounts--"We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young” isn’t it. Written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, then a lieutenant colonel commanding the American battalion that fought the first battle at Landing Zone X-Ray, and by Joseph L. Galloway, a reporter who also was there, the book is a labor of love. The individual stories it tells are courageous and moving, the attention it draws to the valor and sacrifices of ordinary soldiers important and long overdue. But almost every important question the reader might have about the deeper issues of this battle go unanswered and unasked.
Because I so deeply admire the men who fought in Vietnam, I wanted to like this book about them. But as I read it I began to feel the powerful anger any veteran feels at hearing the official story or medal citations--those sanitized, deeply dishonest accounts where every officer is brave and aggressive, where courage is the only yardstick, and where no one is ever to blame. This book is shallow when it should be deep, diplomatic when it should be honest. It serves the army brass more than the men who paid the price for their leaders’ mistakes, and--most sadly of all--it fails as a memorial to the men whose courage seemed most to inspire its authors.
The book begins with the battle at Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray near the Ia Drang. Under Col. Moore--an exceptionally brave, competent and charismatic combat leader--the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry meticulously plans a helicopter assault, secures a landing zone deep in hostile territory, defends it according to classic principles against the fiercest attacks of the war, and drives a superior enemy force from the field.
But this story, which begins in glory, quickly degenerates, like the long war itself, into farce and tragedy. Moore’s battered men are helicoptered back to their base; their relief, the 2nd Battalion, is left behind. The 2nd was a bastard unit of men thrown together at the last minute. Exhausted and shaken, they were evacuated on foot, short of water, in terrible heat, through unscouted jungle--from one landing zone to another, smaller, unsecured landing zone.
Their commander was new, their mission never explained. One of the men called it “a walk in the sun,” like those administrative marches back at Fort Benning after a training exercise. On the way to Landing Zone (LZ) Albany, they blundered into a larger North Vietnamese force and were cut to pieces. In barely 24 hours, 151 Americans were killed, 21 wounded, 4 missing in action.
The authors act as if it was a tragic accident that the battalion stumbled onto a superior enemy force. Accident? The battalion was sent wandering off through the very heart of the North Vietnamese base-camp area. Their sister battalion had almost been wiped out, despite a well-planned, carefully coordinated assault. But the 2nd had no plans, no support, no reconnaissance--and no chance.
The authors seem to have no interest in why this happened, even though they fill page after page with enthusiasm for the new tactics of airmobility, which should have rendered such a tactically reckless march through unscouted enemy territory obsolete. They only wonder, in passing, where the 435 helicopters of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) might have been that day.
Loyalty up, loyalty down--that is the first rule of combat leadership. There was no loyalty down at Albany. Every one of the brave men who died at Albany had been betrayed by his superiors. Yet do Moore and Galloway have a single harsh word? No, they say, these things happen in wartime. Casualties are part of war. As for the brave soldiers, well, theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.
This book panders to the worst form of emotionalism. Its reporting is that of a hometown newspaper that prints accounts of individual bravery without once questioning the decisions of the officers that led to the maiming and the dying. On every major issue the authors’ loyalty is to the good name of the Army, and not to the men who fought for it. After the battle, Col. Moore says “Brave American soldiers and the M-16 rifle won a victory here.” Yes, the Americans were brave, but there was no victory, except perhaps by the perverse calculus of the body count, which would tell us even today that we won the war.
As for giving credit to the M-16, Moore’s book is in fact littered with enough examples of its failure to make his statement seem like shameless toadying to the Army brass and weapons manufacturers--who were under sharp criticism at the time for foisting that shoddy, unreliable and inappropriate weapon onto innocent troops. Hear the words of the men themselves, directly from the book:
* “M-16s jammed and every third man was down in the bottom of the holes with a cleaning rod, clearing the rifles.”
* “I was crawling around looking for an M-16. I got my hands on one, and Specialist 5 Marlin T. Dorman said: ‘That doesn’t work; I’ll get you another one.’ Then he hollered: ‘That doesn’t work either.’ I headed for a third rifle and Pfc. Donald Jeffrey hollered: ‘It don’t work!’ ”
* “I fired a burst from my M-16 which promptly fell apart.”
That is the truth about the M-16, not what Moore says, and his public-relations blather is an insult to every American soldier killed when his M-16 jammed. Every American veteran I know has stories of finding American bodies hunched over their disassembled rifles, cleaning rods in their hands, young men killed because the army could not, would not, give them a weapon as good as the AK-47 carried by our enemies. Not a single combat veteran I know ever found an enemy soldier with a jammed AK-47. Not a single veteran I know would not have carried the enemy’s far better rifle if he could.
The truth does not stop with the ridiculously temperamental weapon the men carried into hot, dirty jungle conditions. Inadequate training, the hasty formation of certain units, the constant departure of seasoned veterans when their tours were up, the maintenance of large bases that sapped fighting strength, ticket-punching by officers who risked their troops to advance their careers, the stupidity of command in battle, and a whole list of other errors, bunglings, and general negligence all helped make it more likely that the brave young men who were sent to Vietnam would die there.
And when they died in the Ia Drang, the Army made sure their families would suffer even greater pain by having the telegram bearing the news delivered by Yellow Cab drivers, some of whom were drunk. The authors mention some of these outrages in passing, but are unwilling to treat them as anything more than acts of God or failures of their favorite whipping boys, the politicians. Beneath layers of Armyspeak and shopworn cliches, the truth gets buried.
Even as combat narrative “We Were Soldiers Once” is a woeful failure. There is no wisdom here about character on the battlefield, about what makes one man a hero and another not, about why small units cohere or come apart. Because we don’t learn about any one person’s life, we don’t understand anyone’s death. What brought them there, what were they trying to prove, justify, flee from? What were their values or failings? How did some rise above what everyone expected and others fall short? It is too long after simply to be retelling war stories; now is the time to go deeper, to look into the hearts and minds of the men who fought and who led the fighting. The authors would have done well to learn from the example of writers like Bernard Fall, whom they often quote, or John Keegan or even Bruce Catton.
There are other problems throughout. On more than one occasion the authors repeat whole quotes and anecdotes almost verbatim. And--inexcusably, this being a combat narrative--they illustrate the book with battle maps that give the positions of specific American units but not North Vietnamese units. The maps become useless and symbolic of a larger problem--the failure to make the enemy specific and therefore human.
For all the hype over the authors’ decision to travel to Vietnam to get the other side, it barely exists here except in a few self-serving quotes from North Vietnamese officers who often were far from the battle. In Hanoi I spoke to many enemy survivors of the Ia Drang way back in 1984. They were eager to talk. Why not seek them out and connect their stories to the stories of the Americans? As it is, the book reads like describing a boxing match by writing about one boxer. The North Vietnamese aren’t men; they are “enemy,” that dehumanizing abstraction that lets us count their bodies like cordwood. That is unavoidable in the heat of battle. It is inexcusable in a book written 25 years later.
The battle at Albany was a military scandal, a disaster, a tragedy that never should have happened. It was a waste of courage that defies description. Every one of the 151 brave men who died there should have been helicoptered safely back to his base. They died for the highest sacrifice a soldier can make--to help their comrades. But when that is the only reason brave men die, then they are betrayed by their leaders.
Ultimately, Moore’s loyalties are to his fellow brass and not to his men. He protects the field officers like a good army man. It’s fine to blame the politicians; they deserve plenty. But Lyndon Johnson did not send the doomed 2nd Battalion on that deadly walk from X-Ray to Albany. Somebody did, but you’ll never find out who--or why--by reading “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young.”