Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this compelling and influential military nonfiction book, Moore provides firsthand perspective and insight regarding one of the most difficult and significant battles of the Vietnam War. Moore describes how the 7th Calvary Regiment (First and Second Battalions) fought off more than 2,000 Vietnamese soldiers in one of the first large battles of the war, at la Drang Valley. He allows readers to understand the reality of war as he recounts the leadership, teamwork, bravery, and sacrifice of so many during the battle.
As a lieutenant colonel in the war, Moore was a highly effective leader, for he believed in personal, approachable leadership. Referencing historical military strategies of the past, he dispenses advice to military leaders.
In the American Civil War it was a matter of principle that a good officer rode his horse as little as possible. There were sound reasons for this. If you are riding and your soldiers are marching, how can you judge how tired they are, how thirsty, how heavy their packs weigh on their shoulders? I applied the same philosophy in Vietnam, where every battalion commander had his own command-and-control helicopter. Some commanders used their helicopter as their personal mount. I never believed in that.
Moore’s intentional leadership made significant differences in how he and other officers led the men, influenced their morale, and ultimately affected the outcome of many fights.
You had to get on the ground with your troops to see and hear what was happening. You have to soak up firsthand information for your instincts to operate accurately. Besides, it’s too easy to be crisp, cool, and detached at 1,500 feet; too easy to demand the impossible of your troops; too easy to make mistakes that are fatal only to those souls far below in the mud, the blood, and the confusion.
Throughout his book, Moore references other men and their insights. He shares a comment from Stephen Crane's “The Colors” which he lived by. Moore was determined to be the best leader he could be for his men.
You cannot choose your battlefield, / God does that for you; / But you can plant a standard / Where a standard never flew.
Moore was a respected and effective officer because he valued every soldier under his command and felt the sting of any one loss of life. He shares this quote from General J. Lawton:
The most precious commodity with which the Army deals is the individual soldier who is the heart and soul of our combat forces.
Moore also clearly paints war as the devastating entity it is; he does not provide any illusion of war as a glorious feat, as he includes a quote from Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman:
There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.
As Moore was a hands-on leader deep in the trenches with his men, he understood the absolute necessity of studying the enemy and preparing appropriately for the fight.
From that visit I took away one lesson: Death is the price you pay for underestimating this tenacious enemy.
Moore provides a look into the personal, intimate struggle of every American soldier who has never come home after a war and of every family member who never sees them walk through the door again. The acclaimed movie We Were Soldiers is based on Moore’s book and powerfully demonstrates the reality of such loss. He quotes Ernest Hemingway:
War is a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.
And he writes,
Oh, my dear. My young wife. When the...
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troops come home after the victory, and you do not see me, please look at the proud colors. You will see me there, and you will feel warm under the shadow of the bamboo tree.
Moore causes civilian and military readers alike to evaluate the true realities of war and the cost upon a nation. Readers gain a very personal look into Moore’s personal thoughts and style of leadership, as he sought not just to win battles but also to protect his soldiers.
Only first-place trophies will be displayed, accepted, or presented in this battalion. Second place in our line of work is defeat of the unit on the battlefield, and death for the individual in combat.
Decision-making will be decentralized: Push the power down. It pays off in wartime. Loyalty flows down as well. I check up on everything. I am available day or night to talk with any officer of this battalion. Finally, the sergeant major works only for me and takes orders only from me. He is my right-hand man.
Moore’s style of leadership has been studied and replicated by many, as his career has been an incredible testimony of sacrifice and strength.
A commander in battle has three means of influencing the action: Fire support, now pouring down in torrents; his personal presence on the battlefield; and the use of his reserve.
Many have analyzed the Vietnam War and its origins. Moore later became a general in the army, and he reflects that
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.
This book has been used as a teaching tool by many military personnel, not only to evaluate the successes and failures of the United States Army in Vietnam but also for future wars. Moore provides insight into North Vietnamese strategies:
Their orders were to draw the newly arrived Americans into battle and search for the flaws in their thinking that would allow a Third World army of peasant soldiers who traveled by foot and fought at the distant end of a two-month-long supply line of porters not only to survive and persevere, but ultimately to prevail in the war—which was, for them, entering a new phase.
Fighting in Vietnam was unlike any other major war Americans had faced. US soldiers faced a determined enemy who used their knowledge of the terrain and their allegiance to their goals to fight foreigners on their land.
It was the final act of a North Vietnamese soldier who was killed. Before he died he took a hand grenade and held it against the stock of his weapon. Then he had gotten on his knees and bent over double. If anybody tried to get his weapon they were going to activate that hand grenade. When I saw the dedication of those two Vietnamese with their hand grenades, I said to myself: We are up against an enemy who is going to make this a very long year.