With All Due Honor

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2002

Those who fought in Vietnam have not fared very well in the popular culture. This is largely because those who continue to shape popular culture have tended to loathe the Vietnam War and much of that loathing has been transferred to those who fought it.

According to the conventional wisdom passed down from the anti-war Left of the ’60s and ’70s, the Vietnam War was uniquely brutal and unjust and brutalized those who fought it. At first vilified as a war criminal and a baby-killer, the Vietnam veteran soon evolved into a victim—victimized first by his country, which made him poor and then sent him off to fight an unjust war, then victimized by a military that dehumanized him and turned him into a killer.

With the notable exception of Hamburger Hill—now over a decade old—this perspective has dominated Hollywood’s treatment of the war. Until now. The new Mel Gibson movie, We Were Soldiers at last treats those who fought the war with the respect and even awe that heretofore has been reserved for “The Greatest Generation.” And therein lies a story.

In Fields of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s baby-boomer character, no doubt reflecting the perspective of the film’s writer, tries to make amends for not honoring his father and his father’s generation. This film was a microcosm of boomer attitudes, as they grew older and recognized that their parents’ generation was passing from the scene.

Having once argued that they should not trust anyone over 30, the “best and the brightest” belatedly realized that their fathers had done something remarkable—they overcame the Great Depression and World War II to save the West. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation were bouquets to their fathers’ generation. Despite the fact that the World War II generation had also involved the country in Vietnam, it now became fashionable to praise that “Greatest Generation.”

But as James Webb, the best-selling novelist who was awarded a Navy Cross for valor in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer and who served as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, has pointed out, many of the same baby boomers who avoided service in Vietnam but who now praise their fathers for World War II still look askance at those of their own age group who fought in Vietnam. They do so in spite of the fact that most of the latter looked to the World War II generation as “their heroes and role models. They honored their fathers’ service by emulating it, and they largely agreed with their fathers’ wisdom in attempting to stop Communism’s reach in Southeast Asia.”

As Webb points out, those who came of age during the Vietnam War differed from their parents in that they were not members of a unified generation but merely an age group. Despite the fact that nothing divided this age group more than the war, the media and the academy anointed those who opposed the war as spokesmen for the baby boomers as a whole. But they never spoke for all. “The sizeable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counterculture agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them.” We Were Soldiers is an eloquent tribute to this latter group.

We Were Soldiers describes the deadly battle between a battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and three regiments of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam’s Pleiku Province in the Central Highlands. It is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young by the officer that Mel Gibson portrays in the movie, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and Joe Galloway, then a young reporter for UPI. The book, based on interviews with participants on both sides, is an exhaustive recreation of the entire Ia Drang operation. The movie closely follows the first part of the operation involving Moore’s battalion during its terrible fight for Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray from the afternoon of November 14 until the morning of November 16, 1965.

In an effort to validate the Army’s new air-mobility doctrine based on helicopters, Moore’s superiors ordered his battalion to seize and defend a landing zone in Pleiku Providence not far from the Cambodian border. The idea was to bring the PAVN to battle and then bring supporting arms to bear once the enemy massed, thereby disrupting the attempt by the North Vietnamese to seize the strategically important Central Highlands. The plan worked—too well. Moore’s under-strength command soon found itself in the midst of a large PAVN base camp containing some 2,000 PAVN troops intent on “killing Americans.”

The problem Moore faced was to hold the PAVN force at bay while he built up sufficient combat power around LZ X-Ray. While the helicopter assault initially caught the North Vietnamese by surprise, there were only enough choppers to bring in 80 troops at a time. Since the round-trip flight time between LZ X-Ray and the battalion’s base at Plei Me was an hour, the danger was that the PAVN force would overrun the LZ before the entire unit was on the ground. Even then, his 450 soldiers would be heavily outnumbered by a skillful and determined enemy.

By all accounts, Moore was a remarkable battalion commander who had prepared his unit well. Despite losing almost a third of his most experienced soldiers and noncommissioned officers before deploying to Vietnam because their enlistment terms were about to expire, the 1st of the 7th Cavalry was a fine unit, well-trained with high morale and unit cohesion. These factors and supporting arms were all that separated the battalion from destruction in the Ia Drang Valley.

We Were Soldiers concedes nothing to Saving Private Ryanor Black Hawk Down in terms of a realistic portrayal of infantry combat. As Moore wrote in his book, “among my sergeants [at LZ X-Ray] were three-war men—men who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and had survived the war in Korea—and those old veterans were shocked by the savagery and hellish noise of this battle…We were dry-mouthed and our bowels churned with fear, and still the enemy came on in waves.”

Some have already criticized the movie for “glorifying the Vietnam War.” But We Were Soldiers does no such thing. No one who sees the movie can possibly think there is anything glorious about war. However it does honor the soldiers who fought it.

One of the most important accomplishments of We Were Soldiers is that it depicts the soldiers who fought the Vietnam War not as pathetic losers or pathological killers, but as regular citizens, as men willing to sacrifice everything to do their duty—to their country, to their unit, to their fellow soldiers. As made clear in the movie, these men also had families, whom they loved and who loved them. Indeed, their last thoughts were usually about their loved ones. One reviewer called the home scenes cloying, but the cutbacks between the hell of LZ X-Ray and the families at home reveal “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.…”

Inevitably, some will ask where Vietnam ends and Hollywood begins. But in fact, the movie tracks the book by Moore and Galloway fairly closely. Friends of mine have questioned two scenes in particular. The first occurs near the end of the battle when Moore orders his men to fix bayonets and then leads them in a charge that sends the PAVN reeling. This scene seems to be a composite of two separate assaults, the first when one of Moore’s companies launched an assault to link up with the ’”lost platoon” (a unit that moved out too far from the perimeter early in the battle, was cut off and surrounded, and spent a harrowing 36 hours fighting off countless assaults by the enemy), the second at the end of the battle when Moore sought to expand his perimeter. The assault in the book is far less dramatic than the one in the movies, although Moore himself did participate.

The second scene takes place after the battle when a helicopter full of journalists lands at LZ X-Ray to survey the carnage. Although some might question the prudence of a public-affairs officer transporting a gaggle of reporters to a battle site when the enemy situation is still uncertain, it happened pretty much as shown in the movie.

Moore’s battalion suffered 74 dead and 121 wounded during the course of the 40-hour battle. Over 800 enemy dead were counted on the field, and countless others were killed by U.S. artillery and air strikes. It should be noted that We Were Soldiers only tells part of the story of the Ia Drang operation. As terrible as the fight for LZ X-Ray was, it was a U.S. victory. What happened a day later was a debacle.

On the afternoon of November 16, Moore’s battalion was heli-lifted out of LZ X-Ray and replaced by its sister battalions, Robert Tulley’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry and Robert McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Because a B-52 strike was schedule to hit the suspected PAVN base camp near the Chu Pong Massif on the Cambodian border, the two battalions were ordered to abandon LZ X-Ray and move overland to LZs farther east the next day. On the afternoon of November 17, the 2nd of the 7th Cavalry was ambushed as it moved to LZ Albany. Strung out along a trail, three of the battalion’s line companies and its headquarters companies were annihilated. In six hours 155 Americans died, the highest death toll for any day of the war.

The battle in the Ia Drang Valley had important implications for the future conduct of the war. The Army favored “search and destroy” missions such as the Ia Drang operation designed to bring the PAVN to battle and then to destroy it. Although U.S. casualties in Pleiku Province were high, some 300 between October 23 and November 26, 1965, estimated PAVN casualties were 12 times higher. Thus the Pleiku campaign convinced Westmoreland that the Army Concept was correct. In a head to head clash, an outnumbered U.S. force had spoiled an enemy operation and sent a major NVA force reeling back in defeat, inflicting far more casualties than it sustained.

Reasonable people may disagree about the Army’s operational concept. For instance, the overall commander of all Marines in the Pacific during much of the Vietnam War, Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, Ia Drang represented an example of fighting the enemy’s war—what North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap predicted would be “a protracted war of attrition.” And says Krulak, a “war of attrition it turned out to be . . . [by] 1972, we had managed to reduce the enemy’s manpower pool by perhaps 25 per-cent at a cost of over 220,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead. Of these, 59,000 were Americans. . . .” Krulak’s figures are probably low. Hanoi has admitted that it suffered some 1.4 million combat deaths during the war.

Reasonable people may also disagree about the war itself. Even many supporters of U.S. foreign policy in general have argued that Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place. But no one can deny the courage, the perseverance, the grit, and the indomitable fighting spirit in Vietnam. No American unit was ever routed in Vietnam and none ever surrendered. The same cannot be said for U.S. troops in World War II and Korea.

The men I served with in Vietnam were not unlike those depicted in We Were Soldiers. For the most part, they were young men barely out of high school. They became skillful, steady warriors, who with only a few exceptions, returned home with little bitterness about the war.

These were the best men I have ever known. I would put them up against any other generation of warriors. I trusted them with my life and they trusted me with theirs. Of course, as in all wars, there were the occasional cowards, laggards, and chronic complainers. But overall, those who fought in Vietnam were the real “best and brightest” of the baby-boomer generation. It is safe to say that most of their countrymen do not know their story. We Were Soldiers is an important first step in correcting this deficiency.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.