Galloway, a war correspondent, caught a chopper going into LZ X-Ray,
thrusting himself into the most dangerous and memorable experience of his
life, which resulted in the book, "We Were Soldiers Once and Young," made
into the movie "We Were Soldiers." I received his recent article from one
of my former ROTC cadets.
Today, Vietnam Is Different From When The War Started And Ended
By Joseph L. Galloway Knight Ridder Newspapers
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - Never mind that dateline. It will always be
Saigon to me, the place where I landed 40 years ago to cover a war that
would eventually consume much of my youth and much of my country's innocence
before it ended in bitter, bloody chaos three decades ago. The old familiar
streets are still here, but now they're lined with chic shops and boutiques
instead of the seedy bars where delicate Vietnamese women once wheedled
overpriced "Saigon Teas" out of big American GIs. The traffic is, at once,
both denser and calmer as motorcycles have replaced bicycles and the
man-powered cyclotaxis have been banned from the center of town. Pedestrians
seem to risk death just crossing a street full of speeding motorbikes, but
it's a carefully choreographed dance. There are rules for the walker: Don't
run. Don't try to dodge. Just walk slowly straight ahead and let the
motorbikes adjust for you.
The Vietnamese are still the hardest-working people I have ever known,
hustling and bustling and chasing a buck and a living with determination.
The majority of them, over 60% are under the age of 30, and for them the war
is something in the history books. The country and the people are far
different than they were when we came and when we left.
In the cities, the old shabby yellow colonial buildings that survived have
been spruced up and modernized. Office towers and high-rise hotels tower
over their older neighbors. Cranes are everywhere in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
City as new construction sprouts on every available scrap of land.
Communists may still rule here, but business is still business, and business
is good in Vietnam. The country's economy grew at a rate of 7.7% in 2004.
Two-way trade between Vietnam and the United States has reached $6 billion
annually . Trade with neighboring China is also at $6 billion a year. A
local Honda plant cranks out millions of the ubiquitous motorbikes that sell
for the equivalent of $1,000 to $2,000.
On the outskirts of Hanoi, a huge gate modeled after the Brandenburg in
Berlin, complete with sculpted horses, marks the entrance of a new
subdivision for the very affluent. A planned but still unbuilt house there
sold six months ago for $250,000. The same non-existent home has already
changed hands twice. The last buyer paid $450,000 for it. Yet in poorer
rural areas such as Quang Tri province, the per capita income is still
What we call the Vietnam War the Vietnamese call the American War. "You
see, we have fought so many wars over a thousand years that we could never
call yours 'the Vietnam War' -- it would be meaningless to us," explained an
earnest young guide in Hanoi. The American War takes up only one paragraph
in the history book taught in grade schools in Vietnam today. But a big,
busy bookstore on what once was Tu Do Street in old Saigon carries shelves
full of books about the war and biographies of some of the great North
Vietnamese Army commanders, such as General Nguyen Huu An, who did his best
to kill all of us in the Ia Drang Valley during some terrible November days
A friend and fellow scribbler, Phil Caputo, inscribed a copy of his book "A
Rumor of War" to me: "As an old French general once told another, 'The war,
old boy, is our youth -- secret and uninterred.'" By then, in the late
1970s, both of us knew exactly what that old French general meant. It
seemed so simple and straightforward when we began that march 40 years ago
with the landing of the first American Marine battalion at the port city of
Danang. We were a modern superpower blocking the spread of communism to a
Third World country. War has a way of looking simple going in -- and
generally turns out to be far more complex and costly than the architects
ever thought possible. This one sure was.
The Vietnam War consumed the presidency of the brash Texan Lyndon B.
Johnson, who sent the first combat troops there. It brought young American
protesters into the streets and helped topple Johnsonīs successor, Richard
Nixon. A third president, Gerald Ford, inherited an orphaned war that ended
in chaos and defeat on his watch.
To those who fought it, mostly young draftees on both sides, the war was
unavoidable, a duty their country demanded of them. To those caught in the
middle, the peasant farm families, it was an unending and deadly disruption
to their lives. One and a half million Vietnamese perished in those ten
years. On the black granite wall in Washington, D.C., the names of 58,249
Americans who died in Vietnam are engraved.
The war gave me the best friends of my life and took some of them away
almost immediately. I can still see their faces as they were then. There
was Dickie Chapelle, with her horn-rimmed glasses and a boonie hat decorated
with the jump wings she'd earned in some other war long before. She told me
that the first rule of war corresponding was that you must survive in order
to write the story and ship your film. A Marine walking in front of her set
off a booby-trapped mortar shell and a tiny fragment nicked her carotid
artery. She bled to death, her head in the lap of another reporter, Bob
Poos, while a Catholic chaplain gave her the last rites.
And Henri Huet, half French, half Vietnamese, all heart, all smiles. He
took me on my first combat operation, teaching me every step of the way how
to do this insane work and stay alive. He went down in a South Vietnamese
Huey helicopter inside Laos in 1971 with the finest photographer of the war,
Larry Burrows of Life magazine, and another who might have inherited
Burrows' mantle had he lived, Kent Potter of UPI. I think of them all, all
66 who died in our war giving everything they had, telling the truth and
showing the real face of war to America and the world.
I think, too, of the young American soldiers who died all around me in the
Ia Drang Valley and elsewhere in a war that seemed like it would never end
-- and never really has in my memory and in my heart. There were men such as
Jim Nakayama of Rigby, Idaho, who had so much to live for. His wife, Cathy,
gave birth to their baby girl, Nikki, a couple of days before he died on
November 15, 1965.
Then there were those on the other side, such as General An who did his best
to wipe us out in the Ia Drang and came damned close to it ...
Years later, in 1993, he and some of his officers went back to our old
battlefield with us, walked that blood-stained ground and shed tears with us
for all who died there, American and Vietnamese. General An died of a heart
attack a year later. In 1995 my good friend Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and I
visited Gen. Anīs home in Hanoi to pay our respects to his widow and
children. There, in a glass case of his most precious possessions, along
with his uniform and medals and photographs of the young warrior, was a copy
of our book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," which told the story of
I think, too, of Col. Vu Dinh Thuoc, who started his career as a private
storming the French positions at Dienbienphu and progressed to lieutenant
commanding a company at the Ia Drang and on to colonel commanding a division
in the final attack on Saigon. As we later walked the battlefield together,
Thuoc tapped me on the chest and said: "You have the heart of a soldier. It
is the same as mine. I am glad I did not kill you." So am I, colonel. So
And I am glad that peace and a measure of prosperity have at last come to
Vietnam and its people after a thousand years of war. There's no room left
for anger or bitterness, only memories, and they, too, will vanish soon