Wednesday, July 20, 2016

We Were Soldiers Once - And Young


War stories are stolen valor.  If you were not there then, why do you care now?  (If you were there then, and want to know about others who were elsewhere elsewhen, then war stories are valid.)  Beyond that and deeper, as the penultimate human conflict, war demands that values be understood in absolute terms. Therefore, war stories can serve to dramatize the conflict of values. 

Definitions are demanded. I say “penultimate” because I place romantic love above war as the stage on which is played the drama of personal values in conflict.  I use “absolute” rather than “objective” because the outcome of war is metaphysically unarguable: win or lose, survive or die. Context does not matter. You can want the British to go home – as so many have in America, Ireland, South Africa, and India – or the Russians—as did my cousins in Hungary in 1956 – but ultimately, the context is irrelevant.  

We Were Soldiers Once – And Young: 
Ia Drang the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam 
by Harold G. Moore Lt. Gen. (Ret)., 
and Joseph L. Galloway: Random House, 1992.
In a fictional drama the hero could be a Russian soldier who believes that he is going to Budapest to fight neo-fascists.  In this story, the American narrator nods to the Vietnamese soldiers who died by his hands.  This is not moral equivalency, the claim that all values are relatively gray and no one is right or wrong. Rather, the moral standards are applied unequivocally to all. The Vietnamese commander does his best to engage and defeat the invader of his homeland.  Meanwhile the American brass back at Saigon are afraid that a colonel might get killed and ruin their day, so they call Lt. Col. Hal Moore back “for a debriefing.”  He refuses to go. The conflict of values is multifaceted.

Serving in the Texas State Guard (which is not issued weapons and cannot be sent overseas), I have been researching military narratives on leadership. (See my review of Extreme Ownership here.) The movie version, titled We Were Soldiers, is well known; and the cinema production offered some insights. Interested in the man who told the story, I got the book from the library. Basically, director Randall Wallace turned a war story into an anti-war story.  Rather than reluctance, Lt. Col. Moore wrote about his enthusiasm: his mission was to kill the enemy. That being as it was, for me (fortunately) some of those lessons in leadership from the book were projected on the screen.
We Were Soldiers.
Directed by Randall Wallace.
Screenplay by Randall Wallace.
Icon Entertainment, 2002.

Take care of your people.
Know the job above you; and teach your job to the ones below.
Only first place trophies are displayed, accepted, or presented. Second place means that you died on the battlefield.
No fat troops. No fat officers.
Loyalty flows down: the commander knows his troops.
Open door policy for officers.
The Sergeant Major reports only to the commander.

From the film, the lesson in leadership that resonated with me, being an expression of the capitalist work ethic that I learned from Ayn Rand, is that the person who is responsible is the first one off the helicopter and the last one off the battlefield.  

The movie did not carry forward the author's intent. It did make an ideological point. Fifty years later, the national mood has come about. We are sorry for the way we treated our veterans. We now forget why we reviled them for serving. 

Back then, we begged them not to go. My uncle who fought under Patton was not alone among the veterans of his generation who counseled their sons not to go. The war was wrong. Like all falsehoods, it failed on many fronts. A free republic does not need conscripts. Viet Nam was not essential to our national security. The government of the southern portion was not democratic. We had no clear mandate. Ultimately, we were not liberators but only the third wave of foreign occupiers after the Chinese and French.  Today, Viet Nam is America's tennis shoe factory. We should have offered them that from the beginning. It just took a horrible lesson for all involved to get there.

When I was called for a pre-induction physical in January 1970, I told my cohort to resist. The draft board separated me. They were in and out in minutes. It took 11 hours for me - 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. I resisted at every station. I refused to cooperate. Finally - as a result of previous heart surgery that never kept me from gym class - I was given a 1-Y.  "What does that mean?" I asked. "If we are invaded, you will be drafted." I replied without thinking: "If we are invaded, I will volunteer."

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