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We Were Soldiers tries to turn the war into a U.S. victory
What really happened in Vietnam?

March 22, 2002 | Page 8

PAUL D'AMATO exposes the lies of the new blockbuster movie We Were Soldiers.

HOLLYWOOD HAS released a string of movies lately that claim to give us a more realistic portrayal of war. But almost every one combines gritty battle "realism" with corny dialogue, one-dimensional stock characters and patriotic sentimentality that compares with any John Wayne movie.

Apparently, a war movie counts as "realistic" if the blood and dismemberment look "real"--even if it fails to say anything honest about the war it's supposed to be depicting. This is certainly true of the new Vietnam War movie We Were Soldiers.

Its purpose is clear--to encourage Americans to feel good about going to war, even though it may be a terrible thing. But We Were Soldiers is more than another post-September 11 movie that's gung ho about the U.S. military.

It is about reviving the Vietnam War as a noble U.S. victory instead of what it really was--the miserable defeat of a colonial army by a poorly armed but highly motivated people.

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HOLLYWOOD'S WE Were Soldiers contributes to the effort to wipe out the Vietnam syndrome. The film stars Mel Gibson as Col. Hal Moore, who leads his 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry (known as the Air Cav) into the first major U.S. military engagement in Vietnam--the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965.

The screenplay is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, by Moore and a reporter who accompanied Moore's battalion into the fight, Joseph Galloway.

The story is about how 400 U.S. soldiers held out and triumphed against "overwhelming odds" during three days of fighting in a place that the Pentagon called LZ (landing zone) X-Ray.

But this "line" is contradicted by how the fight actually unfolds in the film. As both the movie and the book show, the Vietnamese were outgunned because of their lack of air power.

"As we dropped behind the termite hill, I fleetingly thought about an illustrious predecessor of mine in the 7th Cavalry: Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his final stand in the valley of the Little Bighorn in Montana 89 years earlier," Moore and Galloway write. "We were a tight, well-trained and disciplined fighting force, and we had one thing George Custer did not have: fire support."

The authors make the same point again later in the book: "No matter how bad things got for the Americans fighting for their lives on the X-Ray perimeter, we could look out into the scrub brush in every direction, into the seething inferno of exploding artillery shells, 2.75-inch rockets, napalm canisters, 250- and 500-pound bombs and 20mm cannon fire, and thank God and our lucky stars that we didn't have to walk through that to get to work."

The movie shows this barrage effectively--so effectively that viewers are left wondering not how the Americans made it, but how the Vietnamese could have possibly survived, let alone fought, under such conditions.

Conveniently for his purposes, director Randall Wallace--who also wrote the script for the bomb (no pun intended) Pearl Harbor--decided to end the film two-thirds of the way through Moore's story, after 79 U.S. soldiers were killed and the Vietnamese offensive against LZ X-Ray was turned back.

But the battle didn't end there. The next day, remnants of the U.S. fighters at X-Ray, along with the newly arrived 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, were caught in an ambush after a forced march to another landing zone.

In what the Moore and Galloway book calls "the most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War," North Vietnamese attacked and wiped out 155 U.S. troops and wounded another 124--with most of the casualties coming in the first half-hour of the battle.

The book quotes a North Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Huu An as saying: "I gave the order to my battalions: When you meet the Americans, divide yourself into many groups and attack the column from all directions and divide the column into many pieces. Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from the artillery and air."

The movie has Col. An say something similar--only on the last day of the LZ X-Ray battle. Thus in the film, it seems that An's plan didn't work. Yet it did work--the following day.

The movie would have been entirely different if it had shown this phase of the Ia Drang campaign--where U.S. troops were almost annihilated before the survivors were, once again, saved by massive air strikes that not only killed hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers, but also finished off many wounded Americans.

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IN THIS film, there are no cowards, no racists. Everyone pulls together, everyone fights hard, nobody runs in fear, and everybody holds their ground. U.S. soldiers die saying things like "Tell my wife I love her" and "I'm glad I had a chance to die for my country."

Some movie reviewers made a lot of the fact that the Vietnamese are portrayed as serious, hard-fighting men--noble and worthy adversaries. This is in contrast to the standard story about Vietnam.

But it was done for a specific reason. The idea that the enemy was "inferior" wouldn't have provided the proper backdrop to showcase the heroism of the Americans.

This also explains why the film depicts the first major battle in Vietnam. At this point, U.S. soldiers were gung ho, ready to die for what they believed to be a good cause. In short, they were naive.

It would have been impossible to make this kind of movie about a later battle, because by 1968, the U.S. army was already beginning to disintegrate. U.S. forces increasingly came to see all Vietnamese as the enemy and were wiping out villages and committing countless atrocities.

One of the key elements leading to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was the breakdown of discipline and the quasi-mutiny of troops in the field. So David Cortright's book Soldiers in Revolt tells a very different story about Company C, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry--the very unit that was nearly wiped out at the end of the Ia Drang campaign. In April 1970, the men of this reconstituted company refused a direct order to go down a dangerous jungle path--right in front of a CBS camera crew.

Such incidents became commonplace in Vietnam. But showing them wouldn't fit the aims of We Were Soldiers.

If Ia Drang was put in its proper historical context, it would be portrayed as a battle in which poorly armed but more motivated Vietnamese soldiers, fighting for their homeland, confronted forces with far greater military capabilities and showed for the first time that the U.S. had a fight on its hands.

In order to avoid this kind of realism, the movie has to show the battle close up--with a tight focus on the gritty, look-after-the-guy-next-to-you pseudo-realism that was perfected by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.

Any pullback of the camera would have revealed a deeper truth--that these soldiers were cannon fodder for a U.S. military engaged in an imperialist adventure.

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BOTH COL. Moore and the filmmakers portray the Ia Drang campaign as a U.S. victory. But this is completely shortsighted.

As "Cincinnatus," a U.S. officer who wrote an anonymous history of the disintegration of American forces in Vietnam, put it: "The United States Army faced a guerrilla war in Vietnam, a small Southeast Asian country of some 65,000 square miles with a population of about 16 million people. That nation fought to a standstill the United States of America, with over 200 million citizens--one of the largest nations on earth and, surely, one of the most powerful."

"America's fighting men won every major battle, including such crucial conflicts as Ap the Au Shau Valley, Khe Sanh and Tet 1968, yet they lost the war."

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