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MHQ Book Review: We Are Soldiers Still

By John C. McManus
4/19/2018 • MHQ Magazine

We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam

By Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway. 247 pp. HarperCollins, 2008 $24.95

Sometimes a book is so good that it cries out for a sequel. Such is the case for We Were Soldiers Once and Young, a masterpiece that Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joe Galloway published in 1992. That book, of course, was subsequently made into a popular film.

In this worthy successor, Moore and Galloway describe, in moving detail, the profound effect the Battle of Ia Drang has had on the rest of their lives. Fought in November 1965, it pitted Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment against several regiments of People’s Army of Vietnam regulars. War correspondent Galloway was with Moore’s troopers, experiencing the struggle more as combatant than observer. Although both of these men went on to experience many other battles and, in Galloway’s case, other wars, Ia Drang was their signal moment.

The ferocity and desperation of the fighting, the considerable loss of life on both sides, and the great sacrifices of the soldiers have motivated Moore and Galloway to make sure that Ia Drang is never forgotten.

The bulk of this sequel recounts their six trips back to Vietnam, starting in 1990 and culminating in 2005. Along the way, they met with and befriended some former enemies, including the famous Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and Lt. Gen. Nguyen Ho An, Moore’s counterpart at Ia Drang. Moore and Galloway conducted many interviews with these and other North Vietnamese commanders, along with North Vietnam’s official historian, adding much to our knowledge about the perceptions and actions of the communist side of the war in 1965.

On one of the trips, a documentary crew and several other 7th Cavalry veterans accompanied the authors. Such luminaries from the earlier book as Bruce “Snake” Crandall, Ed “Too Tall” Freeman, Larry Gwin, and Basil Plumley, Moore’s former sergeant major, made the trip. Sam Elliot’s portrayal of Plumley in We Were Soldiers cemented his already legendary status in army circles. On this particular trip, Plumley apparently swore off local food, subsisting the entire time on canned Vienna sausages and saltines he had brought from home.

The highlight for the veterans was a visit to the battle area. The men actually spent a night on their old field of battle. Owing to the threat of bandits and nearby Khmer Rouge guerrillas, this was not exactly a safe undertaking. For these old warriors, the experience was both exhausting and cathartic. It solidified among them an already strong bond forged in 1965.

The new ties of friendship with the Vietnamese also strengthened during the trip, but not without some difficult moments. One night, at a joint dinner, former machine gunner Bill Beck was describing his spot on the battlefield to a former North Vietnamese commander when the old officer blurted out: “You killed my battalion!” The commander, who had seen so many of his men die, told Beck that eating with him was not easy.

Beck, who had struggled through years of guilt and bad dreams, assured the commander that it was not easy for him either. Overall, though, I was struck by how easily the old adversaries formed true friendships. Perhaps this was the result of the shared experience of combat, as well as a mutual respect among soldiers.

Beyond the travelogue and the Ia Drang postscripts, there is another important aspect of this book. As time unfolds, and the authors return repeatedly to Vietnam, the reader sees Vietnam transition from a weary, stagnant communist satellite to an economically revitalized, post–cold war nation-state. For instance, the first time the authors traveled to Hanoi, there were almost no restaurants. A few years later, after the fall of Soviet Union, Hanoi teemed with restaurants, shops, cafés, and traffic. Such observations make this one of the finest works in English on Vietnam since the cold war.

The book concludes with General Moore’s ruminations on leadership, combat, war itself, and his long military career, all of which are fascinating. He is quite honest—as is Galloway in an earlier chapter—about his opposition to the Iraq war. Both men are gifted writers. From start to finish the book is well written, with excellent storytelling. I recommend it highly.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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