Wednesday, July 20, 2016

We Were Soldiers Once - And Young

I feel that war stories allow stolen valor. Men who never would have served immerse themselves in vicarious action. I understand that the men and women who did go to war have cathartic reasons of their own for their words. 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. 

I say “penultimate” because I place romantic love above war as the highest stage on which is played the drama of personal values in conflict. It remains that 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. In a fictional drama the hero could be a Russian soldier who believes that he is going to Budapest to fight neo-fascists. 

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 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. The movie did not carry forward the author's intent but made a different ideological point. Rather than reluctance, Lt. Col. Moore wrote about his enthusiasm: his mission was to kill the enemy. That being as it was, for me some of those lessons in leadership from the book were projected on the screen.

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. In the movie, LTC Moore is watching his men on maneuvers observing two sergeants leading their squads on a ravine. One yells at his men, urging them forward faster. The other notices a man limping, stops him, has him remove his boots and orders him to get the foot treated. Both sergeants are right though their leadership styles are different. 
We Were Soldiers.
Directed by Randall Wallace.
Screenplay by Randall Wallace.
Icon Entertainment, 2002.

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 to Viet Nam. 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 another wave of foreign occupiers after the Chinese, Japanese, 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. The other guys were in and out in minutes. It took 11 hours for me - 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. I argued, resisted, or refused at every station. I chose not 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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