Writing a first-person book about the last big war in the midst of today’s war can be tricky. It could attract older vets thinking back to their days in combat as well as younger readers whose interest is piqued by the fighting today. Or it might just be seen as an irrelevant and perhaps wearying rehash, like old GIs retelling stories heard a hundred times.
In a presidential election year – especially when one of the candidates’ campaign narratives draws so heavily on his combat experience in that war fought decades ago – the picture becomes more complex.
Such is the case with We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to The Battlefields of Vietnam, by retired US Army Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and veteran military journalist Joseph Galloway. The book is a sequel to “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young,” the authors’ 1992 firsthand account of the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in what was then South Vietnam.
Fought near the Cambodian border in November 1965, it was the first major battle of the war, pitting several regiments of the North Vietnamese Army against US Army air assault units who’d helicoptered in looking for a fight.
When it was over a few days later, 305 Americans and several thousand Vietnamese had been killed and hundreds more wounded on both sides in a fight so intense it was literally hand-to-hand with fixed bayonets. In the film version, Mel Gibson starred as General Moore.
“We Are Soldiers Still” tells the more recent story of how Moore and Galloway organized meetings with the Vietnamese commanders they’d fought against so fiercely. (More than a passive bystander, journalist Galloway was decorated for rescuing wounded soldiers.)
Other American veterans of Ia Drang were there, too, for the remarkable meetings with their old enemies and for a haunting visit to the place the Vietnamese called “The Forest of the Screaming Souls.”
There is honor and a measure of military glory in the retelling and in the reunion. But it’s more heartbreaking than anything else – references to “old ghosts, old demons that ... sent some of our comrades in search of a name for what ailed us.” That name, we now know, is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The meetings with their old foes stunned the Americans, who hadn’t known what to expect. They were warmly welcomed as they exchanged detailed memories of those horrific days in 1965. On an impulse, Moore gave his inexpensive Timex wristwatch to General Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
“Giap held the watch in both his hands, looking at it with amazement, as tears gathered in his eyes and mine,” the American general writes. “Then he turned and clutched me to him in a full embrace. It was my turn to be stunned as this former enemy – arguably one of the greatest military commanders of the twentieth century – held me like a son in his arms for a long moment.”
It’s impossible to read this book without placing it in the context of the war in Iraq, now the longest American armed conflict since Vietnam.
“Most wars are a confession of failure – the failure of diplomacy and negotiation and common sense and, in most cases, of leadership,” the authors write.
A failure to study history, too, they assert. Moore, a West Point graduate who’d been a combat commander in the Korean conflict, learned that about Vietnam in his study of its history, especially France’s attempt to defend its inevitably doomed role as colonial overseer.
In the end, the general concludes in an essay he’s titled “On War,” “It was the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people.”
And what did those lessons tell him as the sabers began rattling again after 9/11?
“My instincts told me ... that another American president was marching us off into the quicksand even as his lieutenants made the rosy and ignorant predictions – which come easily to those who have never worn a uniform and never heard a shot fire in anger – of just how swift and successful it was going to be....”
But in one thing, Moore would certainly agree with a chief supporter of the American military presence in Iraq, John McCain, who said, “War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality.”