We Were Soldiers Once...And Why?

by Kenneth Champeon, Jan 12, 2004 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

"Those who do not do battle for their country do not know with what ease they accept their citizenship in America." This clumsy sentence is attributed to Dean Brelis, author of The Face of South Vietnam, and it appears as an epigraph to a chapter of We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, recently made into a movie starring Mel Gibson. The intended effect of Brelis' words on those of us who have never done battle...that is, battled for our country is probably to make us feel ashamed. And taken out of the context of the Vietnam War, perhaps they do. But in that context, the Americans were not really battling for their country, much as they might have thought so. They were battling for South Vietnam, which was barely a country: invented in 1954, it was never really invested with a coherent government. Or perhaps they were battling only against an idea, communism, or against the communist powers; or battling for "freedom" or the capitalist powers. Only a few times in America's history has there been an attack on American soil. American interests, yes, many times -- all the time. But there's a difference between the two.

We Were Soldiers comes highly recommended by no less than Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf. Remember the startlingly explicit opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan? The book reads like that; it pins you into the claustrophobic horrors of actual battle like no other book I know. The bravery and dedication of the soldiers is truly breathtaking. "But to what end?" I kept asking myself. Is bravery still bravery if enlisted in an unjust cause? Don't I have the right, and maybe even an obligation to feel disgusted by the incredibly disproportionate loss of life on the Vietnamese side, with kill ratios sometimes estimated in the double digits?

Many recent books on the Vietnam War have tried to give equal weight to both sides. And although co-author Harold "Hal" Moore does include testimony from Vietnamese officers he was to meet personally (including General Giap), the Vietnamese infantry are largely without depth. They are described as "swarming", places are "crawling" with them - the usual insect metaphors. They would come in "human waves", often laughing and giggling as they slaughtered American boys. (The reason they were laughing was probably not because they found the whole business amusing; the Vietnamese are known to laugh compulsively when faced with conflict or discomfort.)

But some Americans could not help but be awed by the tenacity of the North Vietnamese, who were fighting for their country. One soldier exclaims, "Damn! These guys are good!" Another, Lieutenant Deal, says: "One North Vietnamese was sitting against a tree, shot up terribly. But he continued to try to pull a grenade from his pouch. He still wanted, before he died, to get that grenade off....He couldn't lift it more than a couple of inches and then it would fall back and he would start trying all over again."

The book describes the battle (or battles) of Ia Drang, a valley near the border with Cambodia, where North Vietnamese troops had already established sanctuaries of dubious legality. The battles changed the course of the war because they proved that the Americans could win only given a mass escalation and a war of attrition. Ironically, it was the Americans who lost by attrition -- attrition of public support for the war. Even as early as 1965 when the battles of Ia Drang took place, the only thing truly at stake was America's prestige. So the American leadership chose escalation over total withdrawal.

To the Vietnamese, Ia Drang was seen as an early opportunity to learn how to fight their new enemy. One American complained that what they actually learned was how to retreat to their Cambodian sanctuaries, but of course beginning in 1969 Americans bombed those too. The Vietnamese also learned that the best tactic against air cover was to get so close to the Americans that clear shots from above became infeasible. This is why much of the fighting was so brutal, involving hand-to-hand combat, even bayonets. The Vietnamese also used their superior knowledge of the terrain to their advantage; they hid behind giant anthills and within elephant grass. Snipers dangled from trees and infantry camouflaged themselves to resemble trees. To a degree they became indistinguishable from the land itself.

Nevertheless the firepower was staggering, even gratuitous, and occasionally it was used against the Americans themselves. Hal Moore barely missed being attacked by "friendly" napalm, and the battles were so disorienting that Americans would shoot at each other. Repeatedly the book teaches how fragile is human flesh in the face of metal and fire (Deal says that bullets puncturing skin sound like "when you take a canoe paddle and slap it into mud"). The book also shows how dispensable the Vietnamese seemed to be to their commanders.

The authors offer a few glimpses into their enemies' humanity. The ubiquitous Deal is shown the diary of a Vietnamese soldier, which contains a letter beginning: "Oh, my dear. My young wife." (Several of the Americans knew Vietnamese.) Regarding dead Vietnamese (stacked like cordwood is the inevitable simile), Moore considers that each of them has a mother too. But the sentimentality does not last long. Ever the professional, he remembers that this is just his job. A true statement, but one that has also rationalized some of the worst atrocities on record.

They were soldiers once. Now, many of them are dead or maimed. It's actually quite extraordinary how many of them survived multiple wounds, even to the head or near the spine. The flesh may be fragile, but the body as a whole is hard to destroy when modern medical technology is available. I never knew that a bullet could do this, for example: "It went in my leg above the ankle, traveled up, came back out then went into my groin and ended up in my back close to my spine [emphasis added]." And the man lived. There are more ghastly examples. One soldier compares the battlefields - often lost in smoke and louder than anything they had ever heard - to Dante's Inferno, a rather unfortunate comparison because the Inferno was home to the damned.

Perhaps one of the most unsettling things about these soldiers is that some of them actually enjoy war. And I don't mean that they just enjoy making the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. No. War excites them. It takes a certain kind of person to write, as the authors do, "a blessed river of high-powered destruction rained down from the skies". In comparison the Vietnamese don't seem so gung-ho, although they were ferocious and well-disciplined. But several times the Americans encounter Vietnamese who are half-starved, poorly equipped, malarial, terrified, dazed. Many were minors. If the Americans were young, the Vietnamese may have been younger, and to this day nobody knows exactly how many of them died.

The authors claim that the Vietnam War "would...come as near to destroying America as it did to destroying Vietnam." This strikes me as unjustifiable and self-serving. The war wounded America psychologically, distorted its economy, divided its people, punctured its ego. Millions of Americans went to Vietnam and tens of thousands of them died there. But Vietnam was defoliated, some of its loveliest cities (like Hue) were flattened, millions of lives were lost. If the war itself didn't completely ruin the country, America's post-war demonization of it certainly helped. And America managed to destroy Laos and Cambodia in the bargain. America the country got off pretty easily, I'd say - the Vietnam syndrome being perhaps its most lasting damage. Americans are deeply isolationist, and perhaps the greatest effect of the war was to make them disdain their soldiers and distrust their leaders.

So, the authors remind us that once upon a time Lyndon Baines Johnson had been resolutely against committing American boys to Vietnam, and indeed anywhere on the Asian mainland. But it was under his watch that the bulk of the escalation took place. It would be easy to read this not as any kind of defense of South Vietnam but as a simple matter of revenge. The humiliations that occurred at Ap Bac (described in Neil Sheehan's A Bright and Shining Lie) and at Ia Drang were not to be borne by the world's greatest power.

The authors resurrect the possibility that the war could have been won had the United States gone about it differently. For years the US continued to respect Cambodian sovereignty despite North Vietnam's violations of it. American GIs served one-year tours, so that they were unable to become comfortable with the nuances of the theatre. And of course the war was never declared, neither as a war nor as an "emergency", which according to the authors would have permitted "the Army to extend for the duration the enlistments of the best-trained and most experienced soldiers" - the very kind that they were up against.

As the book winds down, the authors quote Clausewitz, whose On War (1833) is a canonical text of military theory: "No one starts a war - or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so - without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it." No war - and indeed nothing - plays out as completely as it was intended, as the incidents at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany described in this book make plain. But the United States was never clear in its mind what it intended to achieve, save perhaps the death of every communist or would-be communist, everywhere, forever.

I have not yet seen the film version (called, for mass consumption, We Were Soldiers) but I imagine it's filled with depressing scenes of Americans dying combined with impressive scenes of Americans killing. The Vietnamese are probably swarming and crawling, laughing and giggling. Mel Gibson's performance is probably inspired. But I expect that the movie is even shorter on history and analysis than is the book. For although it is a superb account of what it means to be a soldier, and young, the book seldom questions why so many young soldiers ended up dead to so little purpose.

- The End -

Review of We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, Corgi, 2002.

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