`Day One' Delivers A Lesson in TV's Role

`DIDN'T we have a chopper come down over there?''

Jack Smith is standing in a field in Vietnam, trying to recall the details of what happened when he was a soldier nearly 30 years ago.

``Yeah,'' answers Larry Gwin, beside him. ``I crashed right over there.''

``Was that you?'' Smith asks.

It's an electrifying exchange - a juncture of past and present that uncovers truths about both. And it's a moment that typifies the special edition of the ABC News series ``Day One,'' airing Monday night from 8 to 9 o'clock (check local listings).

In case the passage of time is tempting some of us - hawks or doves - to minimize the horrors of the Vietnam War in our minds, here comes TV, tapping us on the shoulder and pointing to some actual experience. ``They Were Young and Brave'' reconstructs the four-day battle of Ia Drang Valley - with its heroism and sacrifice - that was fought between the 7th Cavalry Regiment and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the fall of 1965.

ABC News president Roone Arledge says that the ``unprecedented'' step was taken of delaying the show - originally scheduled for Dec. 20 - until the end of ABC's ``Monday Night Football'' schedule. In time zones where live coverage of the football games conflicts with ``Day One,'' network affiliates have tended to drop the latter, causing it to lose a big percentage of viewers. This delay will give ``Day One'' a chance to recapture them.

The decision is solidly justified by a production that proves not only a vivid lesson in near history, but also a reminder of what broadcast TV can do when used the way it should be. It demonstrates how the immediacy of good TV reporting and historical insight can reinforce each other.

IN the summer of 1965, the United States hadn't plunged fully into the Vietnam War, but President Johnson wanted to give the North Vietnamese a taste of the Air Cavalry - a flexible fighting force deployed by helicopter and claimed to be the fastest assault group in the world. The enemy was eager to test the Americans' claim. The film follows 11 American veterans who return to the site of the clash, where 234 US servicemen were killed, more than during the entire Gulf war.

It's the first time a Western TV news crew has been allowed to film a battlefield in Vietnam's Central Highlands, and the production deftly crosscuts shots of the return visit with evocative archival clips - including NVA footage not aired before -

that jump around in time and place.

These powerful images are mixed with burning words of first-hand accounts by the visitors. Their voices are usually reflective and sometimes choked with emotion. The grisly tales of death and mayhem are delivered plainly by men who know the narrative needs no dramatizing. The program's force is found in the their middle-aged faces - grim and lost in thought - as their eyes and minds run over a landscape that sucks them back into the haunting past.

The Air Cavalry, after an initial victory, was ambushed and suffered big losses. But huge Vietnamese losses (more than 2,000 killed) persuaded the Johnson administration that a war of attrition - of body counts and kill ratios - was the way to judge US success.

The US losses may have been less than the enemy's, but this documentary shows viewers the full price paid in the souls of survivors - including North Vietnamese soldiers. The program owes much of its depth and universality to the presence of a former North Vietnamese general and major who also returned and whose own terrible memories are recorded.

Once you see the show, it will be hard to forget the Vietnamese major describing ``a sea of fire,'' when napalm was dropped on his men, or to forget hearing Jack Smith tell how he played dead next to a mortally wounded buddy while an NVA soldier used their bodies as sandbags for his machine gun, its hot shells falling on Smith's supposedly unfeeling back.

It will also be hard to accept the US version of the battle as a virtually unqualified victory with ``light to moderate casualties'' - exemplified in a US Army newsreel of the time. After seeing this compelling film, you'll be able to say you know better - you've been there.

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