We Were Soldiers Once…and Young

by Joseph L. Galloway, Harold G. Moore

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What is the critical view of the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young?  What is its target readership?

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Lt. General Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway (the only journalist who accompanied the troops), both of whom experienced one of the most horrific battles of the Vietnam War, published this account of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in 1992, almost 27 years after the battle.  The first line tells us much about the reason for the book: "This story is about time and memories." (Prologue:xvii)  Because this account is written by 1) the Army officer who commanded the operation on the ground and 2) a journalist who accompanied then Lt. Colonel Moore, its reception by the reading public and critics in 1992 reflected the readers support of or opposition to the war.  Some readers thought it was a patriotic account of American military resilience and some thought it was an attempt to justify a military disaster.

From a military perspective, We Were Soldiers Once is still considered one of the best accounts of small-unit actions (that is, platoon and company-sized actions) in Vietnam (or any other war, for that matter).  The book has been required reading for years at West Point, the Army War College, and suggested reading for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and it is the best and most comprehensive account of an important battle in the early years of America's involvement in Vietnam.  The target audience is any reader who wants to understand fully American involvement in Vietnam and, more important, a reader who wants to understand the heroism of nameless soldiers who fought to keep themselves and their brothers alive in what must have looked to them like a losing battle.  The book is both a testament to disastrous military pride, to the human will, and to duty.

No matter what the reader's political or military perspective is, I think it is important to keep in mind the opening words--"time and memories."  True, the book offers a detailed account of the battle, including the mistakes made, especially by the Americans (who did not have much experience fighting the Vietnamese), but in a much more important sense, this book is about coming to terms with a terrible tragedy and, at the same time, honoring the heroic actions of hundreds of American troops who fought what looked like their first and last battle.  Not too long ago, General Moore gave an interview in which he said that, during the worst part of the battle, it occurred to him that he was commanding a descendant of the same unit destroyed at the Battle of Little Bighorn and commanded by Lt. Colonel George Custer.  He said that he was determined not to follow in Custer's footsteps (interview with Oliver North).  

In the book's Epilogue, General Moore and Galloway expand on what they meant by "time and memories":

It's easy to forget the numbers, but how can we forget the faces, the voices, the cries of young men dying before their time? . . . . Their names march down the lines inscribed on Panel 3-East of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, each one a national treasure, each one a national tragedy. (We Were Soldiers:346)

In what follows in the Appendix, titled "Where Have All the young Men Gone?," Moore and Galloway list the names and short biographies of all the men who participated in the battle and survived, an attempt to honor both the dead and the living from a battle that America won on a tactical level (because we killed more of the enemy than they did of us) but lost on a spiritual or morale level because we thought we were invincible.  "Time and memories"--these are the elements that allow us to objectify experience and achieve some peace.

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