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We Were Soldiers - History and Film Guide

Theresa Ast, PhD in Modern European History, has taught at Reinhardt University for 25 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" @ AMAZON Books.


In teaching history at the university level, I have found it useful to use historically based films in upper level (junior / senior) courses. Over the years I have experienced substantial disapproval and resistance from some of my colleagues.

The typical assumption is that showing a feature film in class is a waste of valuable class time and will only result in "dumbing down" the course content.

I strongly disagree. Each film I use is preceded by a lecture addressing the society, location, time period, events, culture, and politics covered in the film.

Students are instructed about the “differences” between written history and historically based or connected film, as well as the meaning of bias, agenda, propaganda, motivation, and many other important terms which can be used to evaluate film, public events, political speeches and so forth.

The day before I screen the film, student’s are given a study guide and expected to read it carefully in preparation for the film. Based on the study guide question, they are expected to take notes during the film.

When the film is over we have a class discussion largely directed by student comments and questions. Then…then, they must write a five page essay about the film based on the questions provided.

So, to my mind the “lost” two hours of course time are more than made up for by the 2-4 hours they will spend crafting a grammatically correct, logically sound, well-written essay about historical events and how they are portrayed in modern cinema.

Using films builds and maintains student interest, requiring the essays strengthens their analytical, composition, and grammar skills, as well as their understanding of historical events and periods.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Director - Randall Wallace

Writers - Harold G, Moore and Joseph L. Galloway (book)

Stars - Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear

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The 2002 film dramatized the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, the first major engagement of United States military forces in Vietnam. It is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway, both of whom were at the battle.

The Battle of Ia Drang was one of the first major battles between the United States Army and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) during the Vietnam War. The two-part battle took place between November 14 and November 18, 1965, at two landing zones (LZ's) northwest of Plei Me in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Representing the American forces were elements of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry of the United States Army. Both sides suffered heavy losses and both claimed victory. The U.S. lost 234 dead, 242 wounded.

Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) comander of US forces going into Ia Drang; Sergeant Major Plummley; Joseph Galloway- reporter; Major. Bruce "Snakeshit" Crandall - helicopter pilot; Captain Ed W. "Too Tall" Freeman – helicopter pilots

1) What does the story/film reveal about the state of race relations in America in the mid-sixties? Does it matter if a person is among civilians or the military? If so, why?

2) What level of support is the American government giving the US military? Why does it matter whether President Johnson officially declares a state of emergency?

3) What does LTC Moore emphasize in his speech just before their departure? Does his speech reflect American ideals or historical or political development?

4) What disadvantages did the Gis face in battle against the Communist Vietnamese? What advabtages did the Vietnamese soldiers have?

5) What does the argument back at headquarters reveal about the military’s objectives, values, choices? (they discuss and attempt, twice, to pull Moore out of the battle)

6) What is the significance of the discussion between LTC Moore and Galloway, the reporter? What does it suggest about what the administration had planned and what the American people knew or were committed to? Will this difference impact the war?

7) What political, military, or moral points are being made in the scene when the battle is finally over and the reporters decend on the battle weary men with all their questions?

Epigraph: “We who have seen war, will never stop seeing….we will always hear the sound of screaming. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young.”

The War in Vietnam

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q on May 15, 2018:

answers for questions above?

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on May 03, 2014:

Hi suzette. Glad you got to see it. I agree students learn in many styles and it is not always easy (in history) to utilize all those perspectives. This has worked fairly well. Thanks for your comments and especially your encouragement. :) Theresa

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on May 02, 2014:

Theresa: I recently viewed this movie on TV. It is an important statement on the Vietnam War. I support your use of videos/movies in the classroom. With the discussion or written response questions you have included here, you can hardly be criticized for "dumbing down the course." I too, used videos/movies in the classroom with the same type of assignment as you have here. Some students are visual learners and need to see videos/movies in class. They can start some thought-provoking discussions/essays etc. Keep doing your "thing." I am sure your students appreciate your novel approach to teaching.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on November 21, 2012:

Hello Freeway - I think it is a good approach as well. Glad to find another Historian in the trenches who thinks the same way. I totally understand....there is so much to try to cover in a survey course, that I never try to work in films, but I like your approach. I will have to consider trying that.

I can only justify showing an entire film in class when its an upper level course and the time span to cover is far more limited. So for example we meet from 2-3:15 on Mondays for lecture and discussion and from 2-4:15 on Wednesdays to allow for the films. Students know that they are spending an extra 15 hours in my class, but in exchange they get to watch and write about 6-8 great historically based feature films. Students seem to think it is a pretty good trade off - my classes are usually full. Hope you have a great Thanksgiving. :)

Paul Swendson on November 21, 2012:

This is a terrific approach to teaching. I have students do a similar assignment, but they watch the movie of their choice outside of class. In survey classes that cover ridiculous amounts of material in a short time, I can't afford to show entire feature films, although I often show them clips. Feature films can bring things to life for students, and when they do an assignment like this, it may cause them to watch future, historically related Hollywood films more critically.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on May 12, 2012:

You are very welcome and I will continue trying to educate as best I can.

I laughed out loud when you mentioned Google Search. That is what many of my students use and they think that is all there is to research. Kind of sad, actually. Hope you have a great weekend.

AaronT from Melbourne, Australia on May 11, 2012:

No please, Thank you! I understand sometimes that the truth is not always colorful. But its better than living a lie. You have my full support in this matter. Also, I must thank you particularly for your continued work into educating our younger generations with the truth. Instead of just showing them how to use Google Search.

Sincerely Always,


Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on May 11, 2012:

Aaron - Certainly the veterans who fought in Viet Nam, and I thank you and appreciate your thoughtful and kind comments. I am glad, and I think they would be too, that you have had a wonderful life in Australia.

“This is one of the films that has continued to resonate in me. “ I am glad to hear you say that, because I have always thought it was a powerful and honest film, but of course I could not evaluate it from the other side like you are able to.

It is helpful to me to get your personal perspective. And you are absolutely right, WAR is always political, and unfortunately civilians, the innocent people of the nation do end up being collateral damage.

“So let me convey my regards to you for sticking to your choice and delivering a piece of truth to the world.” This is perhaps one of the most genuine compliments have ever received. Thank you very much.

AaronT from Melbourne, Australia on May 11, 2012:

You chose a great film. I was still being born into a Hong Kong Immigration camp during the war. It's films like this that showed me what a true valiant soldier is. I cannot say on behalf of my people, but I personally want the men to know, that I sincerely thank them for giving my family and myself life. For 25 years I've lived a great life in Australia, but I will never forget the soldiers who fought for my future... and my deepest respect till this day.

I'm not a soldier.. but I can see that War is nothing more than pain and death. Very few films can depict this and after returning back to Vietnam to explore the relics of the war, this is one of the films that has continued to resonate in me. I'm glad there are people out there willing to find out the truth for themselves.. rather than submit themselves to propaganda and unrealistic, even far fetched fabricated action hollywood films; as the truth regardless of the basis on actual events.

I don't think many would agree with me, but War to me has always been political. Civilians get caught up as collateral damage, and Soldiers are to fight on faith that they're fighting for the right reason.

So let me convey my regards to you for sticking to your choice and delivering a piece of truth to the world. Thank you.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on January 24, 2012:

Of course you got an A. You write very well; you answered the questions thoroughly; you added in some personal knowledge and facts to buttress your statements.

What more could a professor want? :)

Script Mechanic from Wherever Films Need To Be Nitpicked on January 24, 2012:

I'll consider turning this into a hub.

So, did I get an A?

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on January 23, 2012:

How cool! :) You actually systematically and thoroughly answered the questions (not that I expected you to - I just thought you would critique the hub itself - but this is even better) and you did a great job.

With your knowledge of film in general and your knowledge of politics and the Vietnam way you added in all sorts of material and information that my students wouldn't have added. Just makes it that much better.

I know you said that total agreement often equals boring, but what can I say, I think we both see the war and politics of the conflict and the accuracy and depth of the film pretty much the same way.

And I agree with your conclusion. I think it is one of the best war films. What gives me hope for the college age students of today is that my sudents give this film very high marks as well and with a little support and encouragement from me, most of them can do a pretty good job analyzing both the war and American politics and their depiction in the film. Thanks for a terrific response.

You should take what you wrote, add to it and turn it into a Hub reviewing We Were Soldiers. Seriously.

Script Mechanic from Wherever Films Need To Be Nitpicked on January 23, 2012:

Sorry this is so late. I got into a fight with an author on Twitter, which took up most of my free time. Let's just say that there's no way to win when a grown woman starts weeping.

Race relations in the sixties were dicey. My mother and grandfather were in DC during the race riots, and grandpa actually was forced to shoot several men who broke into their house simply because the rioters were looking for white people to kill. Grandpa, being Marine Corps, had already been deployed in Vietnam a few years before the US was technically supposed to be involved. His brother-in-law, who wishes to remain anonymous, was a part of the 7th air cavalry and was deployed at la Drang for the first time.

Neither really like to talk about what went on in Vietnam, except to excoriate Francis Ford Coppola for Full Metal Jacket and other baseless Vietnam films which depicted our soldiers sent over there as maniacal killers, but when they get together at the local VFW, just as many of their old gun buddies are black as they are white. Military service teaches brotherhood. If you're to function as a unit, you cannot be hung up on personal differences. You need the men at your left and your right to be ready to shoot whoever is drawing a bead on you, each knowing full well you'll do the same for them. Any differences are quickly quashed, because if that trust isn't there, you're all going to die.

So, in that respect, the US military was a great equalizer. Many of the race issues that the civilian US were having didn't exist because of the necessities of belonging to a combat unit. The manner in which one of the younger officers (I forget his name) treated his men while on exercise, specifically looking over the bloody feet of a black soldier whose boots were the wrong size, shows that race differences took a backseat to the job at hand. What's more, this soldier's death paralleled that of a white soldier, both using their last words to say "Tell my wife I love her." The contrast to these events is the prejudice the black soldier's wife faced back home when she wouldn't have even been allowed to use the local Laundromat. I particularly like this angle of the story because it's so unobtrusive. It doesn't pull the viewer's attention away from the main story, but it does make sense when you go back and think on it.

I'm not particularly familiar with why President Johnson's decision to declare a state of emergency was so important. It didn't really stand out all that well as far as events are concerned. A state of emergency would give Johnson the power to send troops into Vietnam en masse. Though soldiers were already there, they weren't officially supposed to be. And it was already understood that the Chinese were backing the Vietcong, so the US had to tiptoe around them for the sake of political maneuvering.

Moore emphasized the importance of cooperation and, probably most poignantly, that they were doing their sworn duty to their country. Normally a decision to invade, be it any country, is accompanied with a good deal of propaganda saying how right it is that we wage war. Moore understood that right and wrong didn't enter into the equation and was simply a method to gain public support. What was important was doing their job. This was before the draft. Every soldier under Moore's command had signed on to fight, and that's what he intended to do, even though he knew a good number of them would not come back alive. His promise was that they would not be abandoned, be it in life or death, and that he would undergo every hardship his meant went through. Given that their numbers had just been cut before deployment, this seemed most likely to be an attempt to improve morale and trust.

His speech, in my opinion, ignores traditional American values, as righteousness and God aren't involved.

In battle, the Americans had the advantage of artillery and air support. They also had portable support weapons such as light mortars with which they could maintain a curtain of fire in order to defend themselves. What the film doesn't mention is that the largely untested M16 employed substandard parts. Many casualties at La Drang were attributed to weapons malfunctions. The receiver of the M16 contained brass parts which, when heated from continuous firings, swelled to the degree that the weapon was incapable of chambering a round. This left many GIs completely defenseless. A number of the experienced soldiers in the ranks, against regulations, had refused to relinquish their M14s and secretly brought them along. These men were reprimanded for stealing government property, but it's widely regarded amongst the rank and file of that era to have saved many lives. (For those unfamiliar, the M14 was a fully-automatic version of a simple gas-operated 30 caliber rifle. Wooden stock)

What with the use of helicopters, they could bring in more soldiers quickly without having to travel through surrounding jungle and evacuate the wounded.

The Americans' primary disadvantage was the terrain. It was not very defensible, and they immediately found themselves surrounded by Vietcong warrens containing numbers they hadn't expected. Which brings me to my next point. The advantages of the Vietcong. They were determined. They felt their cause was right and were willing to fight for what they considered to be their nation's independence. They greatly outnumbered the Americans. They were hidden in underground tunnels and were able to deploy around the GIs at will. This meant that The GIs were clustered together and formed a singular target, making concentration of Vietcong fire that much easier. The perimeter which was established by the GIs in the film was not entirely true to life. The M60, a gun made famous by Rambo, was commonly referred to as the pig because of the way it tore through ammunition. But it was instrumental in establishing a killing ground outside the GI perimeter. Very few Vietcong were actually able to brave the fire of these machine guns and get close enough to use their own assault rifles.

The discussion back at HQ indicates just how valuable Moore is to the nascent war effort. They repeatedly order him to fall back from the combat zone. He refuses, holding to his word, since he knows that without his leadership his men will die. The very fact that his superiors tried to order his withdrawal shows how little they cared for the lives of the other soldiers on the ground.

As for the gaggle of reporters than descend on the surviving soldiers, this indicates the complete failure to understand what has just transpired. These men fought and died because they are soldiers. Politics, propaganda, spin-doctoring, and working to build national support doesn't matter in the least to them. They were given an objective and worked to achieve it. To the media, this is just entertainment. It will be sensationalized, plastered across newspapers everywhere, used to inspire the nation, but it completely ignores what the soldiers really went through. Once again, war is old men talking and young men dying.

And, in my opinion, this is one of the best war films out there because there's no high-minded idealism or heroism involved. It's just the requirements of war.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on December 25, 2011:

Thanks for commenting. You are right, not only is the discussion better, students are much more willing to spend serious time crafting quality essays when they get to address both history and film at the same time.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on December 25, 2011:

I don't think using film is dumbing down. Can a film not also be considered secondary evidence in the same way as a history book, you probably generate more discussion from a movie anyway. Very interesting hub.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on December 18, 2011:

Thank you much Sue. Films do seem to have more of an impact and students seem more willing and motivated to write really good essays after a film. What they write based on a chapter in a book is often short, of poor quality, and often demonstrates no real comprehension. I think I will keep using films. Thanks again.

Sueswan on December 18, 2011:

Hi phdast7

I disagree with those colleagues of yours that showing a feature film in class is a waste of valuable class time and will only result in "dumbing down" the course content.

In fact, I think it would have much more of impact on learning then just being lectured to or reading from a history book.

Voted up and awesome.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on December 17, 2011:

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends on how many films I am showing, how many weeks long the class is, whether the movie is an adaptation of a well-written book (or just based on general historical events), and the number of books total that I am expecting them to read. In this case I have used the movie and the book twice in a course and just the film (after I did a background lecture) in one course, Hope this makes sense..

MUE from Virginia on December 17, 2011:

Are your students required to read the book as well?