Evolving from instructional films produced internally, the U.S. Army now uses modern war movies as teaching aids in professional military instruction. Being able to reference popular media puts instructors and students on common ground and makes lessons more effective. One movie that is commonly referenced is We Were Soldiers and its depiction of the Battle of Ia Drang during the Vietnam War. Although the movie‘s ending differs greatly from reality, much attention to detail was placed throughout the rest of the movie and it’s a popular teaching aid for Army instructors, especially those who served in 1/7 Cav.
Here are 5 lessons the Army teaches from the movie We Were Soldiers
1. Understand your enemy
In the film, Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is seen reading about the experiences and failures of the colonial French in Indochina. He studies the People’s Army of Vietnam in order to understand how they fight. After all, they had the home field advantage and extensive experience fighting for it. Moore uses this knowledge to his advantage in anticipating Gen. Nguyễn Hữu An’s (Đơn Dương) strategy to deploy his own forces during the battle. This lesson is taught to modern soldiers, both in the context on counter-insurgency and large-scale combat operations. Especially towards the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, soldiers studied combat operations of insurgent forces like the Taliban as well as near-peer enemies like Russia and China.
2. Succession of command
One of the U.S. Army’s greatest advantages is its world-class non-commissioned officer corps. NCOs know their soldiers and they know how to get the job done. Moreover, they know how to step up and take charge. In We Were Soldiers, Moore interjects during a training event and notionally kills a platoon leader. He then asks the platoon sergeant what he should do. Hesitating, the platoon sergeant is also killed. Luckily, Sgt. Ernie Savage (Ryan Hurst) knows the answer when Moore gets to him and directs the rest of the soldiers to get off the helicopter. Moore uses this as a teaching point that Army instructors constantly harp on: learn the job of the soldier above you and teach your job to the soldier below you. “We’ll be landing under fire, gentlemen,” Moore says. “Men will die.” This sobering reality of combat is taught to all soldiers with an emphasis on succession of command.
3. Take care of your soldiers
If you haven’t been told to take care of your soldiers, you probably weren’t in the Army. This aspect of leadership is taught at every level from team leader to brigade commander and beyond. We Were Soldiers depicts this throughout the film. It juxtaposes the leadership styles of 2nd Lts. Henry Herrick (Marc Blucas) and Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein). While the former shouts at his men and leads with his rank, the latter officer leads by example and checks his soldier’s foot before instructing the rest of his platoon to do the same to each other. Moore’s leadership is also highlighted when he takes a personal interest in Geoghegan’s wife giving birth. A common saying in the Army is, “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there.” By being a present and engaged leader, soldiers can earn the trust and respect of their subordinates instead of leading through the proverbial rock, paper, rank.
4. MEDEVAC vs. CASEVAC
On a tactical level, We Were Soldiers is specifically used to teach the difference between a Medical Evacuation and a Casualty Evacuation. While the two sound similar enough to the casual Call of Duty player, they are different. A MEDEVAC is performed by a standard and dedicated vehicle that can provide care en route whereas a CASEVAC uses a non-standard, non-dedicated vehicle that may or may not be able to provide care en route. In the film, the unarmed MEDEVAC helicopters with red crosses painted on the side abort a landing at LZ X-Ray, failing to evacuate wounded troops. Seeing this, Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) calls for the wounded to be loaded on his helicopter after dropping a fresh batch of troops. The use of this armed helicopter, that normally carries troops and supplies, to evacuate the wounded makes it a CASEVAC.
5. Communication over trigger-pulling
The Army emphasizes the basic tasks of shoot, move, and communicate throughout training. Although it’s the last one listed, the task of communication is often the most important, especially for leaders at all levels. Gaining fire superiority and maneuvering on the battlefield are crucial to winning a fight. However, communication from a leader to direct their soldiers in these tasks is vital. Communication up the chain of command is just as important, allowing higher leaders to make informed decisions on the battlefield. Finally, communication with support elements like artillery, air support, resupply, and MEDEVAC allows troops to stack every advantage they can get in a fight. The constant radio communication between Moore and his company commanders, helicopter pilots, and air support is used by Army instructors to drive this lesson home. As a leader, engaging with a radio can provide greater effect on the battlefield than engaging with a rifle.