A few years ago on a drive through Eastern Montana, I stopped to see the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, site of Custer’s infamous last stand. The National Park Service has done a superb job overall of making history come alive at the site, but one unique detail of the monument is especially poignant. Standing on the knoll where Colonel Custer and his men spent their last hours firing from the cover behind the bodies of their dead horses, one looks across the rolling hills sloping to the river and sees small, cylindrical markers dotting the landscape. A white marker for wherever a cavalryman fell, a red marker for a plains warrior. Looking at the stone markers, you can visualize it all unfolding.
We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Joseph L. Galloway & Hal Moore does for the Viet Nam War’s Battle of Ia Drang Valley what the Little Bighorn Monument does for Custer’s last stand, serving as a sort of literary memorial. Documenting the US Army’s November 1965 fight in Ia Drang Valley against North Vietnamese Army forces in what is considered history’s first use of airmobile troops (ie soldiers assaulting via helicopter insertion), the book is focused on the soldiers’ view over the course of two days. Weapons, tactics, and political circumstances are discussed on cursorily for context; but most of the pages are devoted to showing the chaos of battle and the heroism of the men who fought it.
The writing has a documentary style that snapshots the events with “just the facts,” excerpting from veterans’ interviews throughout to give the reader a well rounded picture of the battle as it progresses, making the reader feel like he is right in the action. North Vietnamese generals were interviewed at the time of the book’s writing in the early 90s, providing perspective on the battle from the other side as well. Like the markers at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, each soldier who dies is given a name and a brief biography, humanizing the battle’s events better than most war literature does. Refreshingly absent from the book is the cynicism and disdain for soldiers that is so often displayed in books and movies about the Viet Nam War.
The pathos felt as you read is intensified by the knowledge that ultimately the soldiers’ sacrifices in the battle will count for little as America’s leaders go on to mismanage the war terribly. These missteps are touched upon in the conclusion, but again, that’s not the point of the book. The real point is to give use a glimpse of heroism and horrors of war side by side over the course of a single day, and at that it succeeds admirably.
PS The reader is advised to familiarize himself with common infantry weapons of the Viet Nam War, the Army’s rank structure, and the Huey helicopter and its variants. This knowledge will help greatly in drawing a mental picture of the battle.