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We Were Soldiers Once…And Young

Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 14, 2015
Category: Non Fiction

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The North Vietnamese soldier that Colonel Harold Moore’s men captured in the Central Highlands of Vietnam on November 14, 1965 delivered chilling news: "There are three battalions [of Vietcong] on the mountain who very much want to kill Americans but have not been able to find any." A few hours later, those Vietnamese made contact with the 7th Cavalry — and thus began the first battle of the Vietnam War to pit Americans directly against the Vietcong.

The killing began right away. Not the killing of Vietnamese. The killing of Americans. Five died in the first few minutes. The hills were a concert of screams and explosions. Hiding behind a termite hill, Moore thought of another man who’d led the 7th Cavalry: George Armstrong Custer. Moore promised himself that he wouldn’t let this battle — Ia Drang — repeat the sorry history of Little Bighorn.

If you have seen the Mel Gibson movie, you know that "We Were Soldiers Once…and Young" is the story of how close Moore and his men came to being slaughtered like Custer’s troops. The numbers are spine-chilling: In four days of fighting — with the enemy sometimes as close as 75 feet to the American line — 234 Americans died. In the book’s remarkable minute-by-minute account, you get to meet these men. And more: You watch each soldier die. And you get to grieve for every single one.

Why am I so enthused about one of the bloodiest battle stories ever written? For a very simple reason. This isn’t just a book about war. It is, even more, about leadership — a quality always in short supply. Hal Moore has leadership ability to spare; as a result, he has more to teach about inspiring and guiding people than the authors of almost any business book you could name. [To buy the paperback book — used — from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Consider the situation. Americans had been advisers in Vietnam , but they had never really engaged the enemy. Moore — career Army: West Point, Korea, advanced studies in fast-moving guerilla warfare — was, in June of 1965, training his battalion for combat in Vietnam. In August, the Army pulled out all six of his newly-acquired second lieutenants. That same month, any soldiers who had 60 days or less to serve were separated from the 7th Cavalry. So when Moore and his unit sailed to Vietnam, they had already lost 100 of their most experienced men.

The difference between an under-trained unit that survives a fierce battle and one that becomes legendary in defeat is leadership. Listen to some of the ways Moore managed his troops. He told his men:

— "Only first-place trophies will be displayed, accepted or presented in this battalion. Second place in our line of work is defeat of the unit on the battlefield, and death for the individual in combat."

— "Decision-making will be decentralized: Push the power down. It pays off in wartime."

— "Loyalty flows down as well."

— "I check up on everything. I am available day or night to talk to any officer of this battalion."

In training exercises, he says, "We would declare a platoon leader dead and let his sergeant take over and carry out the mission. Or declare a sergeant dead and have one of his PFCs take over running the squad. We were training for war, and leaders are killed in battle. I wanted every man trained for and capable of taking over the job of the man above him."

Or this: Before the battle started, Joe Galloway (a United Press reporter who became co-author of Moore’s book 25 years later) was watching Moore’s soldiers shave as he boiled water for coffee one morning. Moore passed by. "We all shave in my outfit — reporters included," he snapped. Galloway immediately repurposed his coffee water for shaving.

And, finally, this: "In the American Civil War, it was a matter of principle that a good officer rode his horse as little as possible. There were sound reasons for this. If you are riding and your soldiers are marching, how can you judge how tired they are, how thirsty, how heavy their packs weigh on their shoulders?"

Moore applied this philosophy conscientiously. He flew in to Ia Drang on the first helicopter. He led his men from the front. When he saw men from another company beginning to haul one of his dead soldiers out of a foxhole with a harness, he snapped, "No you won’t do that. He’s one of my troopers and you will show some respect. Get two more men and carry him to the landing zone." When it was over and it was time for Moore to turn over command, he requested a full battalion formation. One soldier recalls, "We stood in formation, with some units hardly having enough men to form up. Colonel Moore spoke to us and he cried. At that moment, he could have led us back into the Ia Drang."

But it still wasn’t over for Moore . His wife attended as many funerals as she could. And when he got back to the U.S., in April 1966, he visited some of the families of his lost men. One family thought his visit would last a few minutes. He stayed five hours. And he made sure he went with the family to visit the grave, and there he asked to spend some time alone, kneeling in prayer and memory.

This story — the story of the relationship of a man to the men he leads and the families who entrusted those men to his care — is why you want to read this book, and read it now. Whether you’re an executive or a parent, you will want to read through the ugliness and the pain in order to understand why Moore ‘s men fought and died for him.

Should you ever be in Washington, D.C., the names of the soldiers killed at Ia Drang — and there are 305 of them, in total — can be found on the third panel to the right of the apex, Panel-3 East, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But you don’t have to visit the Memorial to learn from them; thanks to Hal Moore, their deepest legacy is in the wisdom he can, in their names, pass on to you.