A crucial image stands at the end of writer/director Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers. It is 1965, and a fierce three-day battle has just concluded on a bloody field in the central highlands of Vietnam. Bodies are stacked like cords of wood. As North Vietnamese officers arrive at a copse shredded in the fighting and recently abandoned by American troops, they find jammed into a shoulder-high tree stump an American flag, the size of an adult male's hand. The badly tattered flag nonetheless flutters defiantly in the breeze. Wallace employs this paradoxical image as a symbol of individual American will and courage and at once an emblem of how much damage the American spirit would suffer in the nightmare that was just beginning.
We Were Soldiers is the story of Harvard-educated Lt. Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson at his best) and the men who served with him, including the journalist Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper), who came to cover the fighting and ended up participating in the first big American engagement in the Vietnam War. Like Saving Private Ryan and the recent Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers shows war in its naked hellish state. The troops on both sides may wield fearsome and sophisticated weapons, but the actual fighting takes place at quarters so close the opposing soldiers can smell each other. What's remarkable is that anyone on either side survives.
Based on a memoir by Moore and Galloway, We Were Soldiers gets off to a shaky, cliched start. Stateside, Moore's 4-year-old daughter asks him, "Daddy, what is war?" The soldiers train in ways we've seen a hundred times before. Their wives take tea and (embarrassingly executed) notice of racism at the local laundromat. Moore makes inspiring speeches. And we meet idealistic young Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein) who makes such a touching confession about wanting to build orphanages he might as well wear the words "cannon fodder" tattooed on his forehead.
However, save for falsely trying to make us fear that Moore might die (he lived to write his book, after all), the picture finds its rhythm and its heart once the action moves to Indochina. The chaos, the so-called "fog" of war, is captured here as well as it ever has been. The Vietnamese have the advantage of fighting for their homeland on their home turf; the Americans have astonishing technological superiority. But the latter is a two-edged sword, and at a critical juncture when Moore calls in air support as the Vietnamese begin to crash his perimeter, American jets spray the liquid fire of napalm on his own troops as well as on the enemy.
As well as any before it, this film underscores the bravery and the sacrifice that war so often elicits from men under fire. A wounded man gives up his helicopter space for a buddy in worse shape. Another exposes himself to withering fire trying to pull a friend to safety. In the end, the picture urges the psychic devastation that endures long after the guns fall silent. Those who have seen war, the voiceover submits, will never stop seeing war. "I'll never forgive myself," Moore says, "for letting my men die and not dying with them."
For an American film, We Were Soldiers is unusually respectful of the enemy. The common depiction of the Vietnamese opponent as a black-pajama-clad fiend lying in ambush and instantly running from hard combat is nowhere employed. The Vietnamese troops are as disciplined and well-trained as the Americans. They fight bravely for intelligent and well-organized commanders. And as the dying advances, as we have to watch the wrenching scenes of American widows receiving the telegrams announcing their husbands deaths, Wallace makes sure to establish that Vietnamese soldiers carried pictures of their wives, too, and left behind loved ones who grieved for them every bit as much as we did for those we lost.
I spent the better part of my early and mid-20s opposing the war in Vietnam. And if ever we needed confirmation of that war's folly, recent revelations make plain that President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent more than 58,000 men to die in a war they never believed they could win. On the surface, We Were Soldiers seems to shy away from this concern. But a condemnation of the war hovers around the edges. The fact that we never declared war increased our casualties because unrevised draft law kept our troops from needed seasoning. As exhibited in their repeated efforts to extract Moore from the battlefield, the brass was ever more concerned with the army's public image than with the lives of men in combat. Hence this film's bitter benediction, spoken by a Vietnamese general: "The end will be the same, except for the number of men who will die." Though it properly honors the courage of the men who wore the uniform, We Were Soldiers, makes plain that American leadership was never so corrupt.
- Lt. Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) witnesses the early horror and futility of the Vietnam War in Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers.