Monday, February 25, 2013

Book R&R - We Were Soldiers Once

Earlier this month I talked about going back and reading some of what I considered had become "classics" of military history that had gotten by me when they first came out. Admittedly this idea was spawned in part by all of the great books I was finding at used bookstores and my local library sales. I decided to start calling these posts "Book R&R," for review and recommendation. I hope you will find these books as meaningful as I did (or perhaps in some cases, take my recommendation to pass them by). I believe readers should review books as often as possible and recommend the ones they like to others. There are just so many outstanding books, and a good number of stinkers too, that we could all use a tip once in a while.

Book Review and Recommendation: "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed The War in Vietnam" by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.

"We Were Soldiers Once" came out the year I left the Army (1992) and for a few years I had gotten away from reading any subject after WWII so this incredible book got by me. I suppose like many people I can thank Mel Gibson's movie for bringing this book back onto my radar. There is a reason this book is on the Center For Military History's Recommended Professional Reading List for Junior NCOs and is also on the United States Army Chief of Staff's Professional Reading List for 2013. Actually, General Odierno is joined by two previous Chiefs of Staff in recommending this book to his officers. I humbly join them. This is an amazing book. Not just a war story, but I believe an honest morality tale. It is both fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

There is probably nothing I can add to the hundreds of reviews of this book (367 on Amazon alone). However, I'd just like to tell you what lessons I took from this book. First of all, at the risk of hyperbole, I must say that I wish every American would read this book. In it, the reader will learn about the bravery of the American soldier and the real cost of war in terms of the sacrifice of those who have to fight it. It is a story that transcends the conflict in Vietnam and is very applicable to our modern military adventures, where the burden of war is carried by only a small number of our citizens.

The first half of the book describes the formation of what would become the 1/7 Cavalry, part of the first air mobile division (1st Cavalry Division) and its deployment to Vietnam in 1965. The 1/7th Cavalry is commanded by the co-author, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore. Moore's battalion is sent into LZ X-ray and survives a battle against what would have been overwhelming odds if it were not for massive American artillery and close air support, along with the expert leadership of the officers and NCOs in the battalion from Moore down and the undisputed bravery of each individual soldier. Witness to this battle is reporter Joe Galloway, the other author of "We Were Soldiers Once." The fight for LZ X-ray is significant for study and analysis (both then and now) as the first major engagement between American air mobile infantry and the North Vietnamese Army.

The second half of the book, however, was not portrayed in the Mel Gibson movie. It tells the story of Moore's sister battalion, the 2/7th Cavalry, that was marching toward LZ Albany to be extracted after reinforcing the 1/7th at X-ray. While approaching the LZ, unprepared for meeting the enemy, the battalion was attacked by three battalions of NVA soldiers. The chain of command was not able to bring artillery and air support to their rescue in this engagement for several hours. The results were devastating. Both fights constitute the Battle of the Ia Drang, not just the part stylized in the movie version.

The most moving part of the book is revealed in the closing chapters. The stories of two of the soldiers' widows and two fatherless daughters bring to light how the sacrifices on the battlefield not only take the lives of amazingly talented soldiers, but also dramatically affect the loved ones at home, who also pay the price and for the rest of their lives. Reading about the aftermath and the effect on the veterans and their family members is a very emotional experience. However, even more amazing and anger inducing is the way the battle was treated by the leadership of the country. The upper management of the Army and the government refused any lessons to be learned from this battle, and the country continued on a path that we now know was already decided upon before the 1st Cavalry Division even arrived in Vietnam.

If anything I took away an amazing respect and gratitude for the soldiers who fought at LZ X-ray and LZ Albany. I was disturbed at the failure of our leadership and our citizens to take away the lessons offered by the event at the time. Although they were not heeded back in 1965, they are still there for us today. If you enjoyed the movie, I hope you will read the book. Only by knowing about it can we understand the whole and true story of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. History is rife with examples of the need for a citizenry that is engaged in our country's foreign policy. This is one of them.

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