Thursday, November 19, 2009

We are all soldiers - honor the miracle of survival

The Battle Begins: Prologue and Aftermath

Walter Cronkite covers the battle

When I saw snippets of this movie, "We Were Soldiers," on TV, I was intuitively struck.

Was this hyperbole? Is this the way it really was?

I had a nagging fear that this time Hollywood had "got it right."

So I called a friend, "Dave," who fought in Special Forces on the Laotian Vietnamese border in 1969.

"Are there any movies which catch your experience in combat?" I asked.

We talked for an hour.

"We were Soldiers" was his answer. The 2002 movie starring Mel Gibson.

So I rented and viewed the entire film.

The movie is based on the book "We Were Soldiers Once....and Young: Ia Drang -- The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam," by Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway.

Hal Moore, the commander of American forces during the Ia Drang battle, has called the movie seventy five percent accurate and twenty five percent "Hollywood."

He was a consultant in the making of the film.

Joseph Galloway was a United Press International correspondent who covered the battle.

Moore and Galloway wrote a second book, "Soldiers Still: a Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam."

A tale of reconciliation, chronicling meetings with the officers and men fought nearly thirty years before.

See Brad Knickerbocker's review of this book, including an audio clip of an interview with both Moore and Galloway, in The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2008.

The interview probes the attitudes of both men toward war in general and America's current wars.

A third book, "A General's Spiritual Journey," is a memoir by Moore's "driver."

General Moore's Definition of "Humility"

General Moore's Philosophy
of Life and Leadership

Combat Today in Afghanistan

I would compare this astonishing book to a collective memoir of the atom bombing of Hiroshima.

Or to a journalistic account of the Trojan war by Greeks who fought there.

It was the first major battle of the war between the American army and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).


On Nov. 14, 1965, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Moore and accompanied by UPI reporter Galloway, helicoptered into Vietnam's remote Ia Drang Valley, the so-called "Valley of Death."

To thwart an North Vietnamese Army (NVA) plan to attack eastward, the American force made their assault directly into the enemy assembly area.

The Americans found themselves surrounded by a massively superior number of NVA regulars.

The Vietnamese were familiar with the terrain and highly skilled from bloody encounters with the French army, also in the Central Highlands, eleven years earlier.

The Vietminh take on the French: 1954

For a more detailed description of the significance of this battle, see U.S. Military History Companion.

The Americans were forced to withdraw after inflicting casualties on the Vietnamese up to four times what they suffered themselves.

Massive air and artillery fire, including strikes by B‐52 bombers, helped push the NVA back into their Cambodian sanctuaries.

Most significantly the NVA used the battle to learn how to counter American hi-tech weaponry. See original video footage, detailed daily battle accounts, and maps.

This story is a tribute to 234 young Americans who died during four days in Landing Zone X-Ray and Landing Zone Albany in the Valley of Death, 1965.


If you see this movie, you will truly wonder how veterans survive.

Mel Gibson Sends his Troops to War

Forty Four Years Later Marines Depart
Camp Lejeune for Afghanistan


No written review can possibly portray what you will see in this film.

Nor what my friend shared with me.

It is important to see a movie such as this -- to understand why so many veterans were angry either at their government or at the civilians and anti- war activists who later treated them with contempt -- or at both.

It is important to know how much pain and fear so many experienced -- then came on home to try to live normal lives.

It is important to understand why they so often cannot accept that their suffering, and the loss of comrades, might have been in vain.

Why they may lash out when politics is discussed.

So very many of us were spared this.

We owe it to those who return to show the kind of compassion which they too rarely experienced on the battlefield.

This is an old story, in this case a true story.

We better get used to it. It is not going away.

Let us "honor survival."

It is a miracle for all seasons.


General Moore's Personal Account of Ia Drang

The Battle's Aftermath

For the battle is everywhere -- with Vietnamese soldiers popping up in bushes 25 yards away.

Napalm delivered close in right on the edge of American lines.

Close on combat, people dropping on every side.

Four hundred and fifty Americans trapped by superior Vietnamese forces.

Continual eruptions of violence for hours, for days.

Can that ever be forgotten?


It is no wonder my friend, when stressed, sleeps with a revolver under his pillow.

He will never sit in a restaurant with his back to the door.

Vigilance is the name of the game.

His nightmares have receded. He comes across as gentle, kind.

Still he worries if he can keep it together should he lose his wife.

He seems a caring man who treasures his son and daughter, both officers in the military.

That is what he loves, their following in his footsteps in the profession to which he almost gave his life.

But he will not take a job as a server of injunctions, lest his violent side come out.

"When he got close, I hit him with my gun barrel, then shot him with my rifle," recalled my friend.

I did not press him for his total "body count."

"We often could hear them creeping up on us at night."

While out on a reconnaisance patrol, one half of my friend's 12 man squad was burned to death by misdirected American napalm.

"I picked up a .45 pistol from one charred body --- and cleaned off the burned flesh so I could use the thing."


From Chapter 2, "We Were Soldiers Once.....and Young:"

"One month of maneuver, attack, retreat, bait, trap, ambush, and bloody butchery in the Ia Drang Valley in the fall of 1965 was the Vietnam War's true dawn -- a time when two opposing armies took the measure of each other.

"The North Vietnamese wanted their foot soldiers to taste the sting of those (new American) weapons and find ways to neutralize them.

"Their orders were to draw the newly arrived Americans into battle and search for flaws in their thinking that would allow a Third World army of peasant soldiers who traveled by foot and fought at the distant end of a two-month-long supply line of porters not only to survive and persevere, but ultimately to prevail in the war -- which was, for them, entering a new phase."


In this movie you see Vietnamese generals planning flanking actions from their tunnels, little space between the combatants.

Few bayonets, just close in rifle shots.

Helmeted Vietnamese popping up in the bushes, unpredictable, unrelenting.

A strange kind of balance in this movie...for all are caught up in a world that banishes every nuance of civilized life.

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