Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers makes a virtue out of political naïveté.
Alan A. Stone
8 After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Hollywood produced a -spate of movies critical of American involvement there. Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) won the Oscar for Best Picture and legend has it that this movie convinced Vietnam veterans once and for all to rally for the memorial monument that became Maya Lin's wall of names. Whatever its doubts about American policy, however, Cimino's movie portrayed the Vietnamese as less-than-human, despicable, smilingly sadistic "gooks." Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, presented the war as a drug-induced American psychosis in which the Vietnamese were phantoms or pitiable victims. When Oliver Stone revisited his personal Vietnam War military experience in the Oscar-winning Platoon (1986), the Vietnamese were still largely invisible. It would take Hollywood more than twenty-five years to make We Were Soldiers, a movie that breaks with the "gook" stereotype, shows the Vietnamese fighting and dying like soldiers, and demonstrates, as only Hollywood can, that American attitudes about Vietnam have fundamentally changed.
A lot had to change before Americans and especially Vietnam War veterans would be able to accept this new image. It is unreasonable to expect soldiers who fight a war not to hate the enemy, particularly when they lose to an army of ill-equipped men half their size. That hatred fueled the stereotype of the Vietnamese as treacherous "gooks." President Clinton, a well-known evader of Vietnam military service, officially broke the ice. He restored diplomatic relations, made a state visit, and signed a treaty giving Vietnam favorable trade status. Since then Vietnam has been aggressively courting American tourists and many of those who have gone have been American veterans. Those tourists come back talking about the beauty of the rice paddies in the countryside and the warm welcome they get from the Vietnamese people whose land was bombed, napalmed, and defoliated by American planes.
Even Senator John McCain, a pilot of one of those planes and our best-known prisoner of war, has returned several times to Vietnam and been embraced by the people—although he has harsh things to say about his captors, and refuses to apologize for calling them "gooks." McCain has reason to hate; he can never forget that he was beaten and tortured in the infamous Hanoi Hilton until his will was broken (he twice attempted suicide), and saw other prisoners of war killed. Like other career military officers who fought in Vietnam, McCain believes that we would have won the war if the politicians had not tied one hand behind our backs. Many other Vietnam War veterans who were not prisoners have visited Vietnam, met with their former enemies, and are healing the psychic wounds on both sides.
Such reconciliations among men who fought the war and now want to acknowledge the enemy's valor have allowed the change in mainstream American attitudes that we now see reflected on the screen. The screenplay for We Were Soldiers is based on a memoir by retired General Harold Moore, written with war correspondent Joseph Galloway. Although he shares Senator McCain's opinions, Moore has returned to Vietnam many times and met with the Vietcong general who opposed him at Ia Drang Valley, the first major battle of the Vietnam War. The former adversaries have shaken hands, shared memories, maps, and military documents, and become friends. In keeping with that friendship the Moore-Galloway book recognizes the courage and heroism on both sides. In acknowledging the valor of the enemy, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young restores the dignity of all the men who fought and died. Indeed many Vietnam veterans described it as the first book to tell the truth about what happened in Vietnam. David Halberstam led the chorus of critical praise, and compared the book to The Red Badge of Courage.
Moore and Galloway focus on that first battle of Ia Drang Valley, which took place before the war turned ugly and the reasons for fighting it became obscure. Their meticulous history cuts that battle out of the war's complex political and historical tapestry. Because it does, the book can be admired by the John Birch Society as well as Halberstam. But Moore is a hero to the Birchers because of views that are not expressed in the book. Moore may have made friends with the Vietcong, but he has never forgiven his real enemy, President Lyndon Johnson, who sent him and his troops to Vietnam. "A dove in hawk's clothing," Johnson made it impossible, Moore thinks, for the U.S. Army to win the war. Johnson interfered with the military, for example, by not permitting the army to pursue Vietcong fighters into Laos where they were able to regroup and recover. It should be said that even after the bloody Battle of Ia Drang, where he lost large numbers of his men, Moore told journalists that he expected to clean out the entire valley in a few months. Clearly Moore had underestimated the enemy. After many failed attempts to accomplish this goal, American soldiers renamed it the Valley of Death; President Johnson cannot reasonably be held responsible for those failures.
Moore is a 1945 West Point graduate and he led a force of paratroopers in the Korean War. In the Army's preparation for Vietnam, Moore played a central role in creating a new kind of paratrooper who, instead of jumping out of airplanes, would be ferried into battle by helicopter.
Although some critics suggest that the Army's seeming preoccupation with helicopters is part of its turf war with the Air Force, helicopters did prove their value as air ambulances in Korea. But the Army planned a much greater tactical role for the helicopter in Vietnam. The helicopter was to ferry airborne troops in and out of battle positions, rescue the wounded, and be armed as gun ships so they could participate in battle. In 1961, as an Army psychiatrist, I interviewed a steady stream of young soldiers who came through my office to be screened for Army helicopter school. Some military tacticians had a jaundiced view of helicopters, which they saw as noisy, technically limited, and vulnerable targets that are easy to hit with automatic weapons. In the view of these skeptics you had to be suicidal to volunteer to fly one into a battle zone. But the young men I interviewed were not suicidal; in 1961 we were not even at war. As it turned out, however, the Army was already deploying helicopters and their pilots to Vietnam, and more than two thousand would eventually be shot out of the skies. Moore and Galloway are not among the skeptics. They are alive today because the helicopters that ferried them into Ia Drang rescued them from the battlefield as the Vietcong closed in for the kill.
he impetus to make Moore's memoir into a film came from Randall Wallace and it took almost ten years to produce. Wallace specializes in war films and wrote the screenplay for Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning Braveheart. Gibson played William Wallace, the thirteenth-century war hero of Scotland and Randall Wallace's ancestor. Wallace went on to write and direct The Man in the Iron Mask starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He had something of a career setback when he wrote the screenplay for Pearl Harbor, the Disney blockbuster that bombed. Wallace believes that the Disney bosses were trying to ride the wave of success taken by Titanic—a love story with disaster as the backdrop—and rewrote his original screenplay to that formulaic ending. But Wallace is a resourceful man and he had already made sure he would retain control of We Were Soldiers if he ever did the film. (He happened on the bestseller in an airport bookstore and decided to buy the screen rights with his own money.) Eventually he took the project to Gibson, who agreed to let Wallace write and direct the film.
Wallace shrewdly followed the memoir in ignoring the important moral and political questions about the Vietnam War. Communism, domino theory, and the Gulf of Tonkin play no part in the film. And Colonel Moore's John Birch politics have been replaced by religiosity. The screen Moore (Gibson) is a devout Catholic who prays with his family and prays for his soldiers as he fulfills his patriotic duty. Moore is shown relentlessly training and toughening his troops and bonding with the helicopter pilots who will ferry them—notably the fearless pilot (Greg Kinnear) who will save the day and whose strangely appropriate nickname in the film is "Snakeshit."
Skeptics about the Army's use of helicopters will find in this film levels of irony that go far beyond the screenplay's explicit intention. Wallace makes much of the fact that the Army gave Moore's new heliborne troops the same designation and shoulder patch as General Custer's men—First Battalion Seventh Cavalry. When Moore's men are surrounded by an overwhelming force at Ia Drang he thinks of Custer and is determined that history shall not be repeated. The helicopters (napalm, bombs, and artillery fire) and Moore's heroism save the day. In the film's most improbable scene, Snakeshit appears out of nowhere as if his helicopter has silently reached the battlefield, and stops the enemy's advance with bursts of machine gun fire.
The commercial formula of big Hollywood movies requires that directors create a virtual reality. You have to believe you are actually there, feeling the adrenaline rush in the heart of battle. Wallace gives the audience lots of that. He begins with French troops patrolling the Ia Drang Valley circa 1954. They are in outmoded, slow-moving vehicles cursing the war and everything about it. The string of curses is stopped by a hail of bullets. The convoy has been ambushed and we see the French soldier who tried to sound the alarm on his bugle silenced by a shot in the throat. The French are quickly slaughtered. A Vietcong fighter asks his officer whether to take prisoners; when the answer is negative, he shoots a defenseless French soldier. It is already a departure from the stereotype of the treacherous "gook" that this Vietcong asks the question. The scene ends with a Vietcong soldier picking up the useless bugle as a war trophy. Despite the gore, this is Wallace at his best, giving the film the feel if not the reality of historical context. The bugle ironically sets the scene for the new helicopter cavalry to come.
Because Wallace ignores politics, his film and the soldiers portrayed in it seem impossibly naïve. Moore teaches his men by example to live and die for each other. He promises them that he will be first to set foot on the battlefield and last to leave, and that he will take everyone with him living or dead. And he keeps that promise with the help of his helicopter pilots, who take the greatest risks. At Ia Drang, his men fight and die for each other, not for some cause. Led by Moore's wife (Madeleine Stowe), the wives back home also bond and provide each other consolation in the face of terrible loss. The animating premise of the film is the army as a realization of the American melting pot: black and white, North and South, Christian and Jew, everyone becomes family.
The soldiers under Moore's command face death for each other and it is impossible to question their courage or their tragic sacrifices. But the competence of Moore and the military command in Vietnam can and should be questioned, and this film fails to do so. Moore's First Battalion Seventh Cavalry went looking for Vietcong in Ia Drang and landed in the middle of a force that far outnumbered them. Escaping a massacre was the only victory that Moore and his men achieved.
Yes, Wallace's film restores the humanity of the Vietcong and gives the Americans who fought and died there the respect they deserve. It has been described as an anti-war film, but as in Braveheart, Wallace is also celebrating the virtues of the naïve warrior. He held the film's premiere at West Point, where it got a warm reception. When it comes to war, naïveté is the greatest sin. Regrettably, We Were Soldiers makes it a virtue. <
Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review