Why does the Executive Officer's decision to organize the troops have such a strong effect on Private Smith? These questions from from Death in the LA Drang Valley by Specialist 4/C Jack P. Smith

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Jack P. Smith's article "Death in the Ia Drang Valley," originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in January, 1967, details one of the worst battles between U. S. Army troops and Vietcong forces of the Vietnam War, a battle that resulted in one of the largest number of killed and wounded U. S. soldiers in the entire war.  Smith's company, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, suffers a casualty rate of 93% percent during the battle, meaning that 93 of every 100 soldiers are either killed or wounded.   Although not unheard of in U. S. military history, such a casualty rate is rare and, in the case of the Vietnam War, was a crushing blow to the Army's belief in its ability to overcome the Viet Cong.

The episode to which the question refers is important because it highlights two important aspects of Smith's experience: first, he speaks of enlisted soldiers' reliance on officers when combat stresses are overwhelming and, second and perhaps more important, his executive officer's example of leadership leads Smith to take some action that may have ultimately saved his life.  

Fairly early in the battle, which is triggered by an ambush by the Viet Cong of Smith's company, the executive officer of his company (second-in-command of a U. S. Army company), is badly wounded:

The XO let out a low moan, and his head sank. I felt a flash of panic. I had been assuming that he would get us out of this. Enlisted men may scoff at officers back in the billets but when the fighting begins, the men automatically become dependent upon them. Now I felt terribly alone.

As Smith notes, when a battle goes badly wrong, enlisted personnel usually look to the officers to lead them out of trouble and, if the officers are wounded or killed, one of the most important support systems for enlisted soldiers is gone.  The reality is that soldiers like Smith, who are generally inexperienced, need the guidance of either officers or senior non-commissioned officers (sergeants, staff sergeants and above) to fight effectively, especially in an ambush where they have been surprised.

As the battle continues, Smith's XO is shot in the back and then in the foot (losing all or most of his toes).  Smith realizes that his XO is seriously wounded and notes that he (Smith) is "going into shock" because of the carnage around him, which puts Smith into a very dangerous, often fatal, position because he may stop protecting himself.  At this crucial moment, Smith's XO

Then he somehow managed to crawl away, saying that he was going to organize the troops. It was his positive decision to do something, that reinforced my own will to go on. 

The XO's extraordinary leadership, under the most horrific circumstances, instills in Smith the will do take some action just at a point when the physical and psychological shock of the battle is about to overwhelm his training.  The XO's act of trying to lead his company, while he is grievously wounded, is enough to "shock" Smith back into action, and we can reasonably conclude that Smith's life is ultimately saved because he followed his XO's example.

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