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Prior to November 14th, 1965, the military of the government of the United States had never fought a battle against the Army of North Vietnam.

The first U.S. combat troops, in the form of 3,500 marines, had landed in Vietnam on March 8th of the same year. Tens of thousands more followed through the summer. In the run-up to the fall of 1965, the war could be described as the South Vietnamese government attempting to subdue a communist uprising within its borders. Despite failures, both political and military, within the South Vietnamese government, the U.S. was confident that the government would ultimately prevail and was providing financial and military aid to assure that outcome. Kennedy had placed as many as 16,000 advisors in Vietnam and Johnson increased this number to 26,000.

For years, however, the government of North Vietnam had been sending aid to the guerillas in the South. This was both in the form of materiel and direct combatants. While the U.S. believed that the South Vietnamese would regain control over their nation, the North had to be dissuaded from participating in that war.

During the 1964 presidential election, Johnson campaigned as the less warlike of the two candidates. Candidate Barry Goldwater was critical (and somewhat prescient) of the policy in Vietnam and where it would lead, but his emphasis on stronger options (tactical nukes, for example) and the Democrats’ portrayal of him as a belligerent warmonger was contrasted with Johnson’s calls for peace. Even in the face of Johnson’s reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, he remained the Peace candidate in the election. Goldwater lost in a landslide.

Johnson’s concerns were about his domestic policy and, for him, Vietnam was a distraction. That distraction could become a disaster, though, and he vowed he would not be the president who “lost Vietnam” in the same way Truman was accused of abandoning China to the communists.

In February of 1965, several Viet Cong attacks had resulted in American casualties and Johnson’s response was to initiate Operation Rolling Thunder. This was a bombing campaign by U.S. aircraft against North Vietnamese targets that would continue for the duration of Johnson’s presidency.  At the same time, Johnson urged greater use of ground forces and expressed willingness to increase their deployment. Those 3,500 Marines were landed with the mission of protecting U.S. bases from further Viet Cong attacks.

Fairly quickly, it was clear that the North Vietnamese were not backing down in the face of the American air campaign. The South Vietnamese army had been defeated in the field, in the battles of Bình Giã and Đồng Xoài, and the North was increasing their aid to the communist insurgents. Add to that the increasing political turmoil in the South’s government, and the U.S. seemingly reached a point where they had to fish or cut bait.

In a secret memo from April 6th, Johnson authorized additional troop deployments as well as a change in mission to allow “more active use” of ground troops. By this he meant the authority to use U.S. forces on the offensive.

In August, the Marines launched their first large-scale offensive operation against the Viet Cong, Operation Starlight. This was planned to be a preemptive defensive measure, hitting the Viet Cong at their base to prevent raids on U.S. installations. By the fall, the Army was involved as well. At this point, however, the U.S. was operating against the Viet Cong, a force of irregulars that were no real match for the Americans in either equipment or training.

That changed with the Pleiku Campaign. After the South Vietnamese forces drove off an North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attack on the Pleime camp (with the aid of U.S. Air Power) in late October they requested that U.S. forces, in the form of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, pursue the retreating NVA. November 14th saw the Air Cav. move in and finally meet and then engage the North Vietnamese in two major battles, at Landing Zone X-Ray and a few days later at Landing Zone Albany. When these battles were over, the war in Vietnam had taken on a completely new character.

As Hal Moore and Joe Galloway put in in their book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,

Washington was now thoroughly awakened to the ferocity of the fighting at X-Ray and Albany and to the large numbers of American dead and wounded beginning to arrive from the battlefields. The war was entering a new and much more deadly phase; President Johnson wanted to know what that meant and what it would cost.

It was a year or two before I started reading Black Hawk Down that I started reading We Were Soldiers Once… under the same circumstances. Another Thanksgiving visit saw me take down my father’s copy of the book and read it between bouts of turkey. When I got back home, I bought my own copy of the book. At the time, however, I was reading some other stuff and decided to hold off with the Vietnam War until I was in the mood for such. As I am now.

I had watched the movie based on the book, so it was not a new story for me. But despite always meaning to, I’d never got around to the source material. I guess I saw the presence of the book on my father’s shelf as enough of an endorsement to push me over the edge.

I Can Hear the Choir

There are a number of ways to write a narrative of a battle. With The Killer Angels, the story is made smooth by filling in circumstance and dialog, as needed, with speculative historical fiction. The “made-up parts” still have their basis in fact, but nobody is expected to believe that the words spoken by Shaara’s Lee, alone in his tent, are 100% accurate. Black Hawk Down was another excellent example, sticking to the facts as they were available, but forming them into an easy-to-read narrative. As I saw when reading that book, part of the advantage the author had in this case is that the battle was very well documented. It allowed a best seller to also become a scholarly source for information on the battle.

Usually, however, one writes potential-best-sellers in a different style than one would a scholarly presentation. With We Were Soldiers Once…, we see that very different style. Rather than saying something like, “Meanwhile, while the men of the 7th Cavalry were moving into position, unbeknownst to them the enemy was…” the author breaks the narrative. Forgoing a smooth transition, we are switched between points of view. General Moore’s voice is interrupted to identify a North Vietnamese commander and quote him directly. If that commander, in his interview, repeated information that was just used a few paragraphs back, well, we read it again. As a primary-source, it is more important that the words of the interviewees get preserved correctly than to be concerned about the readability of the prose or whether the story retains its grip on the reader.

This is not to say that We Were Soldiers Once… is a tough read. It is not. It’s a very readable book and, indeed, a best seller in its own right. However, the style is heavily influenced by the multiple goals of the book. It is meant to be an accurate representation of source interviews and an original source for the battle. The authors also wanted to, perhaps above all, memorialize those killed in the battle. Again doing so interrupts the flow of the narrative. All things considered I agree with them that this is how it should be.

The book’s chapters are divided into three major sections. After some introduction, there is a section about the fight at Landing Zone X-Ray. The next section covers the second major fight, a few days later, at Landing Zone Albany. A final section considers the aftermath of the battles.

The first section, about LZ X-Ray, reads the best. First of all, given the way the battle played out, it is simply a more compelling story. It is no wonder that the movie adaptation limits itself to X-Ray. The battle was well planned and then the uncertainties and FUBARs that arise they were dealt with, ultimately reflecting well on the U.S. forces and its leaders. We are taken through some harrowing moments, but ultimately a combination of excellent leadership and a bit of luck allow the Americans to pull through. With heavy casualties, yes, but giving far more than they got. It also helps that it is Hal Moore’s voice that ties the narrative together. He was there. He was aware of the big picture, as best he could be, and he was successfully orchestrating the battle. When the story jumps to another participant, in another part of the command chain, it is to augment Moore’s own recollection of events.

LZ Albany was very different. Moore still tells the story, but as a non-participant, assembling the story after the fact. The plan, have the forces at X-Ray march out, split, and arrive at two other landing zones, does not seem (particularly in retrospect) to be well thought out. Once engaged, Moore’s counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade, was cut off from much of his command and was not cognizant of what was going on in the larger battle. For a time, for the worst part of the fight, nobody was. The story, then, is less of the “battle” than of individual cases of perseverance and heroism. The Americans again survived and again made a decent showing for themselves, but it lacks the direction of X-Ray.

The third section pulls together various aspects outside of the view on the ground on those long November days. Moore discusses political and strategic aspects of the battle. He also focus on the families of the fallen back at home. In one chapter, the narrative is turned over to various survivors, loved ones of those killed in battle. They are allowed to speak of their own experience in their own words. Moore, as narrator, makes no attempt to pull it all together.

All of these pieces may not come together as a unified whole in the way (for example) Black Hawk Down did. But they do all play their part. It is an informative book. It is also a moving book. Near the end Moore comments on a part of our culture that has drifted away. Once upon a time, he remembers, we had schoolchildren memorize the names and dates of the great battles of history. Writing in 1992, he sees that we no longer do that.

[P]erhaps that is the first step on the road to a world where wars are no longer necessary. Perhaps.

In a culture where the wars of our past are no longer accepted as part of our present, books like this one – good books which remember how things really were – become ever more important to connect us with where we have been.

At long last, I can compare the movie to the the source material. As a whole, I still think it was a decent adaptation. Critically, the film was changed from the testimonial style of the book to a story-telling narrative. The film is not meant to be a documentary. It is meant to be entertainment. As a result, there were some obvious deviations from the book. Certain elements were taken from the LZ Albany engagement and dropped into the movie during the LZ-XRay fight. Elsewhere, soldiers’ wives who were actually spread around the country were all, for the purposes of the film, placed at the Fort Bragg army base during the battle. While obviously deviating from “the truth,” I can understand the need to both streamline and “spice up” the story so that the movie flows well.

The change that I have a hard time getting on board with is the way the film ends the battle. In the film, Lt. Col. Moore anticipates an impending NVA attack at dawn and decides to defeat it with a counter charge of his own. He instructs his troopers to “fix bayonets” and leads them (literally leads them, mind you) in a charge that sweeps away the enemy attack and overruns a command post. The scene is not only entirely untrue but entirely implausible.

I understand the screenwriter’s problem here. The tension in the battle was highest on the first night, when the American’s struggled to maintain their lines with shortages in manpower, supplies, and proper defensive preparation. Our protagonists triumph on the second day when they receive ammunition, medical supplies, and reinforcements from other commands. By the time they are ready to be exfiltrated*, the enemy has largely retreated from the battlefield. Moore’s 1st Battalion is replaced on line with the 2nd Battalion. After Moore’s extraction, the 2nd Battalion marches away without any further engagements in preparation for a B-52 strike at the NVA base.

The true ending is triumphant, in its way, but does not follow the arc of film storytelling. We want the fighting to come to a desperate climax near the end of the movie, not somewhere in the first half. Again, I suppose I understand the need to have something like that bayonet charge, and I’m not sure I can come up with something better. Using a B-52 strike as the climax would just be kind of gruesome and, likely, also inaccurate. I don’t think we know whether the bombing was successful. Alternatively, simply showing that the NVA ultimately made it back into Cambodia to fight another day would end on a downer – not good for ticket sales.

One of the scenes that was in neither the book nor the movie (shown above, it is in the deleted scenes section of the DVD) has Moore giving a postmortem commentary on the battle to Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland. It appears to be an informal (perhaps off the record) meeting, maybe on an army base somewhere in Asia. On one hand, cutting this scene from the movie removes what is an excellent wrap-up, putting the battle into the context of the next 10 years in Vietnam. Problem is, again, it is entirely made up. Such a meeting did not take place and probably could not take place. Moore did brief McNamara and “the brass,” but it was in a formal context. The thinking that Moore expresses in the scene is close to what he attributes to McNamara in his book – that what the battle demonstrated was the true cost that victory in Vietnam would demand. It was a price that the U.S., in the end, was unwilling to pay.

Moore’s greatest criticisms, echoed by his fellow battlefield commanders, are for two areas of policy. The first is the unwillingness to pursue the North Vietnamese into Cambodia. It was a fairly open secret that the North Vietnamese were using the Cambodia to transport and shelter troops, yet the U.S. insisted on maintaining the facade of Cambodian neutrality. This meant that retreating NVA units had an invisible line which they could cross into safety and, like Moore’s enemies in this battle, would be allowed to rest and refit until they were ready to fight again. The other policy Moore felt was costly was the policy to limit terms of selective service to 12 months. Shortly after the events depicted in the book, the experienced soldiers who had won the battle rotated home. For the remainder of the war, just at the point where American soldiers had learned to master the terrain and fight against an unconventional enemy, they were withdrawn to be replaced with a new crop of draftees with zero experience.

There is one more area that neither Moore nor any other of the interviewees criticized directly but a pattern comes out of what they did say. Throughout the book, repeatedly, are stories of failures of the M-16. Soldiers describe sifting through several damaged or failed rifles, trying to find one that’s working. Others talk about defending themselves with a 1911 when they found themselves without a working rifle. Some of the problems seem to be functional – jammed actions and the like. Others have to do with plastic parts being destroyed by enemy fire. Just how bad, or not, the M-16 was when initially deployed in Vietnam is the subject of many heated on-line discussions. One wonders if the decision to replace the M-14 was a factor in America’s troubles in Vietnam. And if so, what does that say about the military today, where derivatives of the M-16 remain the main rifle of our armed forces?

*The term “exfiltration,” used to describe a military operation that is the opposite of an “infiltration,” seems to have first been used during the timeframe of the events of this book. Previous uses of the term, going back another hundred years, refer to something being “filtered out.” Modern usage often has it in reference to IT, playing on the military term, likely because it entered the common parlance via computer gaming.