With respect to Jack Smith's article Death in the Ia Drang Valley, what is the difference between the author's reaction to the hundreds of Viet Cong killed at Ia Drang and his reaction to the hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed in the ambush?
What did Private First Class Jack P. Smith think of the Vietnamese casualties relative to the American casualties from the battle of Ia Drang? Smith, later a prominent journalist and son of another prominent journalist, Howard K. Smith, provides clues in his very straight-forward account of that monumental battle from early in the Vietnam War. The following paragraphs from Smith’s article, Death in the Ia Drang Valley, November 13-18, 1965, provide all the detail one can glean from this depiction of the first major engagement between U.S. troops and North Vietnamese regulars, supplemented by Viet Cong guerrillas:
“I learned that Stern and Deschamps, close friends, had been found dead together, shot in the backs of their heads, executed by the Cong. Gruber had identified their bodies. Everyone was crying. Like most of the men in our battalion, I had lost all my Army friends.
“I heard the casualty figures a few days later. The North Vietnamese unit had been wiped out-over 500 dead. Out of some 500 men in our battalion alone, about 150 had been killed, and only 84 returned to base camp a few days later. In my company. which was right in the middle of the ambush, we had 93-percent casualties-one half dead one half wounded. Almost all the wounded were crippled for life . The company, in fact, was very nearly annihilated. . .
“After a week in and out of field hospitals I ended up at Camp Zama in Japan. They have operated on me twice. They tell me that I'll walk again, and that my legs are going to be fine. But no one can tell me when I will stop having nightmares.”
The American soldiers who fought in the Ia Drang Valley performed magnificently. The courage and abilities displayed defy easy description. For every one American killed, three or more enemy soldiers were killed. But, as Smith’s article points, for those involved, all that really happened that day was that a lot of Vietnamese were killed and a lot of American soldiers were killed or wounded, including all of his friends. That the casualty account strongly favored the Americans would prove of little comfort. The battle of the Ia Drang Valley represented a major transformation in the conflict from one of counterinsurgency against Viet Cong guerrillas to a combined conventional war against the People’s Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese) armed with tanks, anti-aircraft weapons, including thousands of missiles, heavy machine guns, and aircraft, and the black-clad guerrillas continuing to conduct terrorist attacks in cities and villages across South Vietnam. Smith’s view of the respective casualty counts following the battle of Ia Drang represents the minute focus of the participant, not the broader perspective of the generals and civilian officials who made the big decisions. That minute focus, however, provides the perspective the rest of us need to really understand the situations into which we send young men and women to fight.