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Tragic Ignorance in Vietnam

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THE lesson Americans should derive from these two wonderful books about an awful war pivots on a terrible word: ignorance - overestimation of American power and underestimation of the enemy's skill, tenacity, and dedication. The authors draw on both their own Vietnam experiences and on careful research to counter the argument that American forces fought hard and successfully but were let down by cowardice and dissent at home.

Was it really so? Or did the communist readiness to fight and die help create a stalemate, with the Americans suffering heavily as they attacked, attacked, and attacked again?

All this emerges in "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," a beautifully crafted, hour-by-hour account of the Ia Drang Valley battles in the Central Highlands during November 1965, written by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, a young reporter during the battle.

"The Ia Drang campaign was ... a dress rehearsal; the place where new tactics, techniques, and weapons were tested, perfected, and validated," begin the authors in the prologue. "Both sides claimed victory and both sides drew lessons, some of them dangerously deceptive...."

Like any disaster story that horrifies yet fascinates, the book compels the reader to read on - anticipating the cries of the wounded, the courage and ability of the medics, helicopter pilots, and certain commanders, and the bitter struggle against an enemy just yards away.

Be it platoon, company, or battalion, a cohesive unit can save its members from the maelstrom of battle. A unit "overrun" signifies a perimeter collapsed, the enemy flooding in, wounded lost, and every man for himself. The word "overrun" overhangs this book, giving it a feel of battle comparable to S. L. A. Marshall's best work, John Keegan's "The Face of Battle," and Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels."

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