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I’ve read quite a few books about Vietnam, but the only one that I’ve read twice is “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young,” by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway.
It’s the story of the first full-scale engagement between North Vietnamese regulars and American troops, a bloody, desperate battle in the central highlands of Vietnam that began on Nov. 14, 1965. The 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, commanded by Lt. Col. Moore, launched a helicopter-borne air assault into the remote and rugged Ia Drang Valley, employing a tactic that would become iconic for the war.
Moore’s 450 officers and men were immediately surrounded by 2,200 NVA troops, and the ensuing battle is a credit to the courage and tenacity of the soldiers on both sides. Four days later, 234 Americans were dead, and the North Vietnamese, decimated by superior American firepower, lay scattered across the battlefield in numbers that can only be estimated. The fact that both sides claimed victory portended the 10 more years of confusion that lay ahead in Vietnam.
Joseph Galloway, a 24-year-old reporter for UPI, hitched a ride on one of Moore’s choppers during the early stages of the battle and was an eyewitness to the chaos and courage. At one point, he stepped out of his reporter’s role to rescue wounded soldiers under fire, earning the only Bronze Star ever awarded to a civilian by the U.S. Army.
Galloway went back to Vietnam in 1971 and 1973, and he was there in 1975 to see the end of the war. He worked as a UPI bureau chief in New Delhi, Singapore, Moscow, and Los Angeles, among other places. He covered the 1971 India-Pakistan war, as well as the Persian Gulf War in 1990. Now he writes a regular column for McClatchy newspapers, focusing largely on military issues.
His columns reveal his long familiarity and companionship with soldiers, from four-star generals to the lowliest privates. He often criticizes the war in Iraq, and he regrets the misuse that the Bush administration is making of the armed services. His columns have the fearlessness of someone who’s seen it all on the battlefield and is willing to speak the truth to those who haven’t.
So when Galloway made a speech at our local university last week, I was in the audience.
Galloway has South Texas roots. He grew up in Refugio, a small town 50 miles north of Corpus Christi. When he was 17, he began writing for “The Victoria Advocate,” the local newspaper in my own hometown, close by. In December of 1960, he wrote a feature on my aunt and uncle, who served as postmaster, schoolteacher, and proprietor of the only general store and gas station in Vidauri, Texas, population 3, a railroad way station in the middle of the flat coastal prairie. The story included a photo of the general store, with three horses tied to a decrepit gas pump out front.
How good a reporter is Galloway? After 47 years and hundreds of thousands of published words, written from all across the globe, I showed him a copy of this article, one of his earliest journalistic efforts, and he immediately said, “Oh, yes, George Gould, the postmaster. You know, when I took that picture, the gasoline distributor, Mr. Boone, was so embarrassed by that gas pump that he replaced it with a new one. ”
Memory. Focus on detail and people. And maybe a little pride in the knowledge that sometimes good journalism can make things happen in the world.
Galloway continues the effort to change the world by writing. His themes are the corruption and folly of the Iraq war, the imprudence of venturing into Iran, and, perhaps most of all, the creeping destruction of our armed forces by our misguided policies in the Middle East.
At considerable personal risk, Galloway set out as a young man to understand war and our soldiers, discovering the ironic truth that an army in a democracy can be both extremely powerful and fragile at the same time. In the process, he earned the right to write truthfully and fearlessly about what he discovered on the battlefield. So far, many of the men who were careful to avoid those battlefields aren’t listening. But I suspect Galloway will keep trying.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)