We Were Soldiers Once…and Young

by Joseph L. Galloway, Harold G. Moore

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

The primary theme of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young is the relationship between the human cost of battle and the strategic importance of military engagements in the larger wartime context. The authors write specifically of the November 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam. Joseph Galloway was connected as a journalist, and Harold Moore led a U.S. army battalion as a lieutenant colonel. Another, almost equally significant theme is the advantage of hindsight in interpreting an important social and political era: the authors published the book 27 years after the battle that dominates the narrative.

One reason that the Ia Drang Battle became especially significant was the high human cost; the authors delve deeply into that aspect of the primary theme. How can one evaluate the cost of combatants’s lives? More than 200 U.S. servicemen and even more Vietnamese combatants died in the four-day battle. Closely related to this question is the theme of service and sacrifice that people make for their country or other causes.

Regarding strategic importance, the authors explore both the lead-up to the decision to launch the attack and the consequences of the South Vietnamese-US loss. The US forces had set out to incapacitate enemy forces that held important positions and, by doing so, demonstrate US military superiority. Because it was the first major battle of the war, it was in many ways a test case. The military leads assumed that the US forces would easily defeat the North Vietnamese. Whether from faulty intelligence or basic misunderstanding of North Vietnamese strategy and tactics, it turned out that the US forces were both outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Learning such a hard lesson, the authors convey, generated changes in military policy that shaped all future engagements. They argue that those decisions and others that depended on them contributed to making the war unwinnable.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, when the United States finally pulled out of South Vietnam, public opinion of the war remained sharply divided, but the majority shifted against military involvement. Writing decades later, the authors confront the lasting costs of an unpopular war that took many thousands of lives. They contextualize the losses at the time with those that followed and the continued costs to veterans and their families, as well as the declining US global prestige.

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