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We Were Soldiers Once . . . But Hollywood Isn’t Sure in Which War

by Maurice Isserman, Professor of History, Hamilton College

In March 2002, Paramount Pictures released the film We Were Soldiers Once. Based on the best-selling book, We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young, the film tells the story of the first battle of the Vietnam War from the perspective of two participants, a U.S. commander and a reporter. The film opened to somewhat mixed reviews, praised for its “patriotism” and criticized for its sentimentality. But as Maurice Isserman, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History at Hamilton College, and co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, writes, the film deviates from historical events at several critical junctures. Isserman explores the ways in which the film ignores several important aspects of the story and invents others to fit into a Hollywood tradition of war films.

I recently went to see a showing of the just-released Vietnam War epic, We Were Soldiers. The film, starring action hero Mel Gibson, and directed and written by “Pearl Harbor” screenwriter Randall Wallace, tells the story of the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the first significant encounter between American and North Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam War. In 48 hours of nearly continuous combat in mid-November 1965 in a rugged border region of South Vietnam, a few hundred Americans managed to hold off an assault by several thousand North Vietnamese. The movie is based on the excellent 1992 memoir/history We Were Soldiers Once and Young, co-authored by retired General Harold G. Moore, who as an army colonel in 1965 commanded the first battalion of the Seventh Cavalry (helicopter-borne or “airmobile” troops) in the battle; his co-author, Joe Galloway, witnessed the bloodshed in the Ia Drang Valley as a young reporter.

For much of the film, the action on screen adheres closely to actual events. The Americans, engaged in a reconnaissance in force that inadvertently stumbled upon a North Vietnamese base camp, defended a helicopter-landing zone about the size of a football field. The fighting was at close quarters, and it was only the determined resistance of the air cavalry troopers, combined with the superior firepower they were able to bring to bear on their attackers, that prevented their small defensive perimeter from being over-run. Director Wallace has said that his motive in making “We Were Soldiers” was to “help heal the wounds” left by the Vietnam War. The courage of the soldiers who fought in the Ia Drang Valley, he declared, would “affirm what’s noble and lasting in the human spirit.” That is certainly a worthwhile aspiration. Unfortunately, the movie Wallace wound up making turns out to be less about the particularities of the Vietnam War than it is about some idealized, abstracted, and ultimately cynically manipulative fantasy of generic American heroism under fire.

For if the Seventh Cavalry’s courage did not falter in fighting the original battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the filmmakers' courage certainly did in retelling that story. In the film’s climactic moment, the early morning of the third day of battle, Colonel Moore’s men are exhausted, outnumbered and running out of ammunition. It’s all too clear that one more determined enemy attack would crack the line. But Colonel Moore/Mel Gibson saves his men and wins the day by ordering the troopers to fix bayonets and charge into the teeth of the coming North Vietnamese assault. As the Americans swept aside their foes and charged to victory and glory, I could feel the elation in the theater.

What kept me from sharing the elation was the knowledge that the events on the screen suddenly had no bearing on the actual historical events they pretended to depict. Automatic weapons and hand grenades rendered massed bayonet assaults in the 20th century about as anachronistic as cavalry charges. The last recorded bayonet assault by American soldiers took place in the Korean War—and even then it was considered a wildly outmoded tactic. And, as anyone who has read Colonel Moore and Joe Galloway’s book knows, they make no claim that any such thing took place.

What historical movies are often about is not so much history as other movies. Throughout We Were Soldiers I kept being reminded of the 1993 Turner Entertainment film “Gettysburg.” Actor Sam Elliott, who plays a tough and gravelly voiced master sergeant in “We Were Soldiers,” had played a tough and gravelly voiced cavalry officer in the earlier film. As a casting choice, Elliot’s presence works at a subconscious level, and probably intentionally, to link the two films and the battles they depict in the audience’s mind. And, it so happens, the emotional and dramatic center of Turner’s movie about the events at Gettysburg, is the bayonet charge led by Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain that turned back the Confederate assault on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

But the Ia Drang Valley was not Little Round Top. Colonel Chamberlain’s order to fix bayonets is a legendary moment in American military history, but 102 years later Colonel Moore wisely did not follow Chamberlain’s example. Instead, his soldiers did what they were trained to do, which was to hug the terrain and rely upon massed firepower to turn back the enemy. In the Ia Drang battle, the North Vietnamese broke off the assault of their own choice. That was the almost invariable pattern in military engagements that followed in the Vietnam War; the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong chose when, where, and how long to fight. But the filmmakers, finding that historical truth inconvenient, dramatically unsatisfying and insufficiently inspirational, fabricated a new ending.

Does any of this matter? It does, if we want to understand why the Vietnam War turned out as it did. The American commander in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, chose to call the encounter in the Ia Drang Valley a great victory. The Americans had indeed racked up an impressive “kill ratio.” While the Seventh Cavalry lost 78 men killed, they probably inflicted ten times as many casualties on the enemy. But what the film fails to mention is that the North Vietnamese, having broken off the assault on Colonel Moore’s unit, turned around the next day and ambushed a relief column from the second battalion, Seventh Cavalry, killing an additional 155 Americans. It was the ability of the Vietnamese Communists to sustain heavy casualties time and time again, and then return to the attack, that in the end proved far more important in determining the outcome of the war than any supposedly favorable “kill ratio”—or even the undoubted courage displayed by individual American soldiers.

The filmmakers wanted We Were Soldiers to convey the gritty realities of combat in the Vietnam War. But they also wanted to make a commercially viable film. To achieve the latter, they apparently decided to fudge their commitment to the former. Perhaps they felt that audiences needed a rousing scene of Mel Gibson leaping up and charging into the enemy’s massed ranks to feel that real heroism was on display. If so, I think they underestimated their audience’s intelligence—not the first time that Hollywood has committed that particular sin. If We Were Soldiers was intended to heal some real historical wounds, it is altogether unfortunate that the filmmakers chose to do so by indulging in unreal historical fantasy.

Source: Reprinted from History News Network (http://hnn.us/articles/638.html) 3/18/02. This piece originally appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Reprinted with Permission.