Early in We Were Soldiers, gung ho bullethead colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) invokes Custer as a possible paradigm for his situation during the 1965 battle of Ia Drang Valley, the America-Vietnam War’s premiere engagement. The intended irony is wafer-thin: We know Moore survives, since he wrote the self-celebrating book the movie’s based on. Writer-director/blood-lover Randall Wallace is apparently blind to it, but the unintended irony is thick as a brick—Vietnam as a gargantuan Little Big Horn, with about as much claim for glory and honor. Such is the danger of making war films in the new century, when hardcore digital realism must go hand in hand with fuzzy, inspirational notions of neo-warrior ethos. Wallace’s movie is yet another instance—equal to Black Hawk Down in carnage and nervousness, if not filmmaking brio—in which we explore the heartbreaking tragedy of American soldiers sent into foreign lands for purposes only millionaire politicians could dream up, and suffering wretchedly as they slaughter armies of nameless wogs.
The Other-to-American body count is typically lopsided (18 to one, approximately), but à la BHD, only the Americans get personalities and a funeral roll call. Like all Hollywood war sagas post-Saving Private Ryan, Soldiers is righteously explicit about the damage artillery does to human flesh, and for its part, it proves relentlessly unpleasant. Any distinction rests with the attempts at apoliticality: The Vietnamese forces actually talk, plot, and look at pictures of their wives. Moore’s NVA counterpart even gets a penultimate battlefield musing, pondering the future of the conflict.
The idea of responsibility, personal and national, is a militarist’s greatest dread; mountains of carrion may accumulate, but as long as we salute and shed a tear, no one need answer for meaningless deaths. In the leathery skulls of Wallace and Moore—a war-game-playing dilettante and a seasoned warmonger—saying that the America-Vietnam War was a horrific, idiotic waste of life is somehow not tantamount to saying it was a crime. By comparison, Oliver Stone’s Platoon plays like the experience of a sensibly outraged man worthy of our sympathy.