My apologies for missing out on doing a Veteran’s Day post. Had a damned busy day all day, then played a show tonight, and this is the first chance I’ve had to post anything. Let’s look in on Steyn right quick to see if he can cover for my lapse…
On “Fox & Friends” this morning, reacting to the live footage of President Trump in Hanoi, I talked about the Vietnam war’s domestic impact on the American psyche. It took many decades for that to change, and this Veterans Day movie pick is one of the cultural artifacts of that evolution in perception – a film about soldiering that wears its allegiance in its very title. It was released about six months after 9/11, in the spring of 2002, and in that sense is a movie about an old war seen through the lens of a new one.
The best thing about We Were Soldiers is how bad it is. I don’t mean “bad” in the sense that it’s written and directed by Randall Wallace, screenwriter of Braveheart (which won Oscars for pretty much everything except its screenplay, which was not overlooked without reason) and Pearl Harbor (whose plonking dialogue has been dwelt on previously in this space). Mr Wallace is as reliably uninspired as you can get. And yet it serves him well here. Pearl Harbor was terrible, but it was professionally terrible, its lame dialogue and cookie-cutter characters and butt-numbingly obvious emotional manipulation skillfully woven together into state-of-the-art Hollywood product. By contrast, in its best moments, We Were Soldiers feels very unHollywoody, as if it’s a film not just about soldiers, but made by soldiers – or at any rate by someone who cares more about capturing the spirit of soldiery than about making a cool movie. It’s the very opposite of Steven Spielberg’s fluid ballet of carnage in Saving Private Ryan, and yet, in its stiffness and squareness, it manages to be moving and dignified in the way that real veterans of hellish battles often are.
This is all the more remarkable considering that it’s about the first big engagement of the Vietnam war, in the Ia Drang valley for three days and nights of November 1965. In those days, the word “Vietnam” had barely registered with the American public and the US participation still came under the evasive heading of “advisors”. In essence, the 1st Batallion of the 7th Cavalry walked – or helicoptered – into an ambush and, despite being outnumbered five to one by the enemy, managed to extricate themselves. Colonel Hal Moore, the commanding officer of the AirCav hotshots, and Joe Galloway, a UPI reporter who was in the thick of the battle for two days, later wrote a book – a terrific read. That’s the source material from which Wallace has made his movie, with Mel Gibson as Moore and Barry Pepper as Galloway.
We Were Soldiers opens with a brisk, unsparing prelude – a massacre of French forces in the very same valley, 11 years earlier. Then we’re off to Fort Benning, Georgia a decade later, where Colonel Moore and his grizzled old Sergeant-Major, Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), are training youngsters for a new kind of cavalry. “We will ride into battle and this will be our horse,” announces Moore, as a chopper flies past on cue. Basil Plumley, incidentally, is not in the least bit plummy or Basil-esque. He’s the hard-case to Moore’s Harvard man, a fairly predictable social tension, at least to those BBC comedy fans who treasure the “Dad’s Army” inversion, with lower middle-class Arthur Lowe and his posh sergeant John LeMesurier.
Wallace turns a great book into a clunky film, and at first it seems as if he’s doing the usual adapter’s shtick of taking a vivid real-life story and shaving all the edges off to fit the usual clichés. The Fort Benning scenes become incredibly irritating in their bland gee-whizzery. There’s always some kid around to prompt Mel Gibson to wax philosophical, as when his five-year-old cute-as-a-button daughter asks him, “Daddy, what’s a war?”
Clunky? I dunno; I liked it a lot, which is a damned rare thing for me when I’m seeing a movie after having read the book beforehand. I can think of very few times throughout my life when that’s been the case, and We Were Soldiers was definitely one of them; in fact, the only other I can come up with off the top of my head was Lord Of The Rings. As always, Steyn has a larger point tucked in there, although it’s a pretty brief post; I’ll lay off the excerpting to let you go read it. He has another Veteran’s Day post as well, a re-posting of one from 16 years ago that he prefaces thusly:
I spent much of the morning before Veterans Day in various TV green rooms with a whole lot of vets, and also a young lady whose father died in Iraq in 2006. She is rightly proud of the dad she lost when she was barely old enough to know him, and he would certainly be very proud of the way his young daughter has turned out. But I wonder more and more whether our society is worthy of the terrible sacrifices of so very few.
As do I; sometimes it’s very damned hard to convince myself that it is, and that’s a pretty tough pill for a guy like me to choke down. The seeming disconnect between the majority of the country and its soldiery is another worrisome issue, one worth pondering in depth, which I’m not going to get into doing just now. I’ll just say that it isn’t healthy, and can’t lead us anyplace we ought to want to be; I’ve discussed it privately with some of my military readers these last few years, and I confess I can’t see how to satisfactorily resolve it. I’ll just leave it at that for now, and hope for a chance to delve into it at a later date.
As for myself on this (day after, technically) Veteran’s Day: may God bless all of you who have worn the uniform, each and every one. I agonize a good bit these days as to whether this nation, in its present state, is worth defending, or even preserving in its current form at all. But yours is an honorable path nonetheless, one deserving of our respect and gratitude. I have a lot of military readers out there, and have since the very beginning; I sincerely hope I’ve never given any of you cause to doubt that respect and gratitude for a single moment. I’m greatly honored and gratified by your attention to my trifling scribblings here.
I’ve said before that there have been times over the years when I’ve been just about ready to hang the blogging up, and every time I’ve felt that way and pretty much made up my mind to pull the plug—every single time, believe it or not—I’ve gotten an e-mail from somebody out at the pointy end declaring how much the site means to them, that it’s sometimes the only thing that gets them through another day’s slog in the far-flung, deadly hellholes we send them to. And then I sit right back down and get back to work again. It’s impossible to adequately express what that sort of thing means to me, and if the comparatively minuscule labor and sweat I put into this matters that much to these folks…well, who the hell am I to try to dodge out of it?
It’s inspiring, and very, very humbling, is what it is.
Thanks again to all of you, for all of it. You guys truly are our best and brightest; always remember that there remain plenty of us out here who know it. Our political leaders may not have your backs as they should; your own upper-echelon leadership is far too politicized in way too many cases, and fails to put your own interests ahead of their own dismayingly (and infuriatingly) often. But we the people are solidly behind you; hell, even a fair number of my liberal friends are quite happy to let you go ahead of them in line or give up their table in a restaurant to you, enough of them so that it’s not nearly as startling to me as it once was.
And that’s as it should be; may it always be so, and may we somehow find a way to justify your sacrifice by aspiring to a higher standard and, inspired by your example, be thus ennobled ourselves.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.