I went through college as part of an ROTC program that granted an officer commission upon completion of my degree. I received my commission as a Marine Corps Second Lieutenant in January of 1992, and I went through The Basic School the same year.
If "The Basic School" conjures images of Full Metal Jacket in you, back up the truck: That movie depicted Basic Training, which is what enlisted people go through. TBS, a.k.a. "The Bummer Summer", is officer training, designed to make you well-rounded and capable of leading in any military occupational specialty, or MOS. It is, generally speaking, a continuation and amplification of the education officer candidates got in the ROTC program, and especially the Officer Candidate School session held during the summer before our senior years. The instructors never made us do push-ups until we threw up: It wasn't that kind of training. The iconic memory, for me, was doing a nine-mile run in combat boots, and then doing mapping problems so the staff can see how well we could think while fatigued.
While not exactly cerebral, Marine Corps officer training contains a significant amount of warfighting theory at the strategic and tactical levels.
That's right: We read books.
Go ahead, laugh if you must. I'm sure my Soldier, Swabbie, and Chair Force compatriots won't believe this, but we didn't just eat the covers. I never once saw one being used for kindling. We actually read them.
A lot of them, in fact. The Commandant of the Marine Corps had, and still has, a professional reading list for every level of the organization, and we were expected to read and understand everything appropriate for our level.
Four of these books really made an impression on me: The Killer Angels, All Quiet on the Western Front, Rommel's Attacks, and We Were Soldiers Once... And Young. The contexts of these books are the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, respectively.
The first two are historical fiction, which I mention to make a point: We didn't read them to learn specific data points or doctrine, but to understand the truth about war. These stories are, in a way, used by the Marines the same way the lives of the Saints are used by churches. They inspire; they teach; they guide; they put you into a situation, mentally, and encourage you to live your life the way you'd like your story to be told.
This brings me to Lieutenant General Harold "Hal" Moore. He was the Commander of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Ia Drang. We Were Soldiers Once... And Young is the story of that battle, as seen through the eyes of then-Lieutenant Colonel Moore and his men. Joe Galloway, a reporter embedded in Moore's command, brings the threads of each man's narrative together, with Moore, appropriately, showing the big picture.
We Were Soldiers Once... And Young was made into the movie We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Lieutenant Colonel Moore and Sam Elliot as Sergeant Major Plumley. See the movie, then read the book.
I could tell more about the battle, about the medals, about further campaigns -- but that seems foolish when there are already articles that do so, and when that's what the book and movie are for anyway. Instead, I'll tell what the Ia Drang story makes me think of.
Yes, I know that leaves you reading the words of a small man in order to contemplate the life of a great one, but that's all I've got.
I remember being in my early twenties, reading the story of Moore and his soldiers, feeling the responsibility that Moore felt for each of his men as well as his mission. He knew and accepted that some of his men would die, but those losses touched him deeply despite their inevitability. There was no casual loss. No man could be left behind. Yet he also knew what his responsibility was, and he wouldn't give in to despair or give up on winning the battle. There was nothing squishy, no false mercy for his men, in his actions. And his men rose to the challenge set by his example.
Not to get overly sentimental, but isn't that what God is like? Seeing everything, pushing forward with His plan, but caring about each of us individually?
I was fed a steady diet of Christ figures in high school literature courses, but because they were often defined by their self-sacrifices, they were usually weaker than needed. Hal Moore also was a self-sacrificer, but a strong one: A man of Christendom, a man of the West. I don't say this lightly. Moore was a Christian, a Catholic, and his religion was important to him. He also was a man who recognized nobility in his opponent, as shown by his reaction to and understanding of Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An, even many years later.
And, to be fair, it no doubt helped to have Sergeant Major Plumley at his side. You don't allow yourself to let a man like that down.
Lieutenant General Hal Moore died on Friday, February 10, 2017, just shy of his 95th birthday (February 13). He joins his wife, Julia, who died in 2004, and Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, who went ahead on reconnaissance in 2012. He leaves behind five children and twelve grandchildren.