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
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
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 this 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.
Mel Gibson stars in a movie adapted from the book --- but that's
not why I encourage you to read about a battle that most Americans
cannot identify and even fewer care about. This book is essential
reading because Hal Moore has more to teach about leadership than
the authors of several dozen business books.
Consider the situation. Americans had been advisers in Vietnam, but
they had never really engaged the enemy. Moore was career Army:
West Point, Korea, advanced studies in fast-moving, guerilla
warfare. In June of l965, he began training his battalion for
combat in Vietnam. In August, the Army pulled out all six of his
newly-acquired second lieutenants. In August, 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
--- "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
--- "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."
Or this: Before the battle started, James 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 before the battle. 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
This story --- the story of the relationship of a man to the men he
led and the families who sent those men to be in his care --- is
why you want to read this book, and read it now. If you're an
executive in charge of workers or if you're a parent trying to
raise your children, you above all other readers will be able to
read through the ugliness and the pain and 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
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 24, 2011