by Steve Lancaster 6/5/14
Not long ago I wrote a review of The Great Santini. I would like to follow it up with a review of We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. The book, by one of the most respected reporters of the 20th century, Joe Galloway, is solid reporting of the Vietnam War, before Walter Cronkite pronounced the war unwinnable. The movie and the book focus on Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, a battalion commander, in Ia Drang valley of Vietnam in November of 1965. The book and movie seek to explain what happened in the Ia Drang valley during that critical year of 1965/66 when the war accurately became an American war.
The movie is a collaboration with Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace, both of Bravehart fame. It is the story of the events in the Ia Drang valley of Vietnam in November of 1965. Like Bravehart, it is full of action and intriguing characters. Since it is a mostly true story with real people it has the added element of being pretty good history.[pullquote]For those of you who have seen Saving Private Ryan, the combat is no less intense and graphic and takes over an hour of the movie. If you have never been in combat this is the closest you will get without coming home with PTSD.[/pullquote]
The movie begins with the development of the air cavalry in the early 1960’s and the decision by the army to use helicopters as a major tool of war in Vietnam. The concept is simple: Highly trained troops land in enemy territory by helicopter, engage the enemy, defeat them, and move on by helicopter to the next battle, often with a battlefield no bigger than a football field. As long as the air support keeps coming there is every expectation that the better trained, equipped, and organized American army will prevail. The results of the search and destroy strategy did result in high kill ratios, but since the air cavalry were lightly armed and did not have heavy weapons other than mortars, they could not hold strategic areas, like the central highlands of Vietnam, without continued air support.
The story describes the events of 3 days and 2 nights of what would become an extended battle for the Ia Drang valley over the next year. The battle set the format for the American army and the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) for the rest of the war. Three MOH (Medal of Honor) were awarded during this engagement and a Bronze Star was awarded to Joe Galloway, the only one given to a civilian reporter during the war. One of the faults of the movie is that it gives the impression that Hal Moore’s 1/7 was the only unit engaged. In fact there were many units involved. This was a brigade level fight with 2/7, 2/5, and artillery units at firebases nearby.
One interesting contrast is the soundtrack, part of which features Bob Dylan, and the dual concepts of the 7th cavalry of George Custer at the Little Big Horn and Hal Moore in the Ia Drang. Adding to this is a background of war drums when the Communists are beginning their attack.
For those of you who have seen Saving Private Ryan, the combat is no less intense and graphic and takes over an hour of the movie. If you have never been in combat this is the closest you will get without coming home with PTSD. As in most movies Randall Wallace adds to reality. The end of the movie details an attack on the Communists by Moore and support helicopters. It did not happen, but makes a great ending. Additionally, the cut-off platoon is over-dramatized with Sargent Savage’s hand reaching into the air when they are rescued…did not happen but it makes a great movie moment.
During the next two years American troop levels reached 500,000. And by January 1968, the military could reasonably claim that victory in South Vietnam was at hand, and then there was Tet. For the Communists, Tet was a disaster with at least 50,000 KIA. The media, who never understand war, called it a disaster for the Americans.
The movie highlights Hal Moore, and his Sargent Major, Basil Plumley, and both men deserve credit. Plumley was airborne in WWII and made all four jumps in Europe and another in Korea. The unmentioned focus of the story is leadership. There are as many styles of leadership as there are men and women who lead. Colonel Moore, Sargent Major Plumley, and Colonel Bull Meechem (The Great Santini) are all leaders of the highest quality as is the PLVN commander. The subplot is about leadership and the men who lead other men into battle. Hal Moore is a real person and Bull Meechem is not. However, the two are much the same in many regards. Both have a profound love of the service and the men they lead. I would follow any of these men into combat any time, and any place.
We Were Soldiers, is available on Netflix and you can pick it up on DVD for 5-10 dollars. I recommend the DVD as it has some of the best deleted scenes. I would have been happy if Randal Wallace had let the movie be a little longer and included all as it fills in some gaps. • (1672 views)