We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, is a major contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War. It recounts the fighting in the Ia Drang Valley in November, 1965, that marked the first major engagement between American and North Vietnamese troops. Moore and Galloway argue that the battle of Ia Drang established a pattern for the conflict that would persist until American troops withdrew from Vietnam. These men write with authority. Moore commanded the battalion of the Seventh Cavalry that initially engaged the North Vietnamese in the battle, and Joseph Galloway was the first American journalist to arrive on the scene, sharing in the dangers of combat. Their narrative of the battle is crisp and fast-paced. Their informed military judgments deserve respectful attention, but this book is much more than a standard military history and reaches well beyond the analysis of an important battle.
Moore and Galloway built their account out of the recollections of survivors of the Ia Drang fighting. Their blow-by-blow description of the battle is always told from the perspective of the men engaged. This brings a powerful immediacy to their work. It also makes We Were Soldiers Once…and Young a wrenching collective memoir of the American servicemen who saw the face of battle many years ago in the Ia Drang Valley. The book recaptures these men’s experience of combat and the ways that it changed them. It exposes as few books do the ghastliness of war and the courage, and occasional nobility, of the men who wage it. Although paying tribute to the heroism of the Americans who fought in the battle of Ia Drang, Moore and Galloway never forget the terrible human cost of war. They preface their work with several pages listing the names of the Americans who died in the battle. Unlike many writers of military history, they pay attention to the sad aftermath of combat, both the grisly task of policing the battlefield and the melancholy notification of families back home that their loved ones have perished. Nor do Moore and Galloway neglect the North Vietnamese side of the story. They traveled to Vietnam to interview the Vietnamese officers who commanded at the battle of Ia Drang. Always conscious of the ultimate futility of the Vietnam War and the ambiguous memory of the sacrifices made there by American servicemen, Moore and Galloway’s work takes on the dignity of an elegy, for the brave young men who went unquestioningly into battle in 1965 and for the ideals they carried with them.
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson led the United States into the Vietnam War because they believed that a successful communist insurgency in South Vietnam would endanger the policy of containing the Soviet Union and its client states. They inherited a Cold War orthodoxy in foreign policy that interpreted most regional crises as episodes in a larger struggle with an aggressively expansionist Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin’s creation of a Soviet empire in the aftermath of World War II gave this vision of the world credibility. The Korean War for a period turned the Cold War quite hot and accelerated the process of militarizing American foreign policy. By the early 1960’s, the American people had grown used to recurrent confrontations with the Soviet Union and its allies, and their leaders had become increasingly ready to use force to quell communist challenges.
When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he believed that his conservative predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower had sacrificed American military flexibility on the altar of economy. Under Eisenhower, American security had been guaranteed by a buildup of nuclear weapons, which proved much less expensive than maintaining large numbers of infantry and armored divisions. The unofficial slogan of the day was “more bang for the buck.” The United States Army of the 1950’s devoted its energies and comparatively limited resources to training for conventional warfare on the plains of central Europe. Kennedy determined to create a military capable of meeting a variety of threats around the world, launching a major expansion of the armed forces. Kennedy took a special interest in the development of military units capable of waging guerrilla war in the Third World. He sponsored the creation of the Green Berets as specialists in counterinsurgency warfare. He also made possible the organization of the experimental Eleventh Air Assault Division, dedicated to testing the feasibility of airmobile battle tactics.
The concept of airmobile warfare was the inspiration of Lieutenant General James Gavin and other military reformers who chafed at the institutional stodginess of the 1950’s Army. These reformers, often former paratroopers (as was Gavin), dreamed of liberating infantry from the tyranny of traditional battle fronts, giving them unprecedented freedom of movement. The instrument of the military revolution they envisioned was the helicopter, which had seen limited service in the Korean War. Advocates of air mobility argued that highly trained assault troops carried by helicopters offered the means of creating an entirely new dynamic on the battlefield, in which American maneuverability and firepower would overwhelm more conventionally organized opponents. From its inception, the airmobile division proved to be both a practical and a public relations success. An elite force with a carefully cultivated esprit de corps, the airmobile division was renamed the First Cavalry Division in July, 1965, inheriting a proud tradition that went back to the days of Indian fighting on the old frontier. It was inevitable that the First Cavalry Division, seen as the cutting edge of the new Army, would be sent to Vietnam once the decision was made to commit American troops to the fighting there.
Moore and Galloway are scathing in their criticisms of the way President Johnson first entered and then waged the Vietnam War. Unwilling to concede South Vietnam to an...
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