You'd have to have a heart made of stone not to be moved by We Were Soldiers, Randall Wallace's bullet-by-bullet account of the Battle of LZ X-Ray, which was the first major encounter between "us" and "them" during the Vietnam War. Dropped via helicopter into the scrub brush and tall grass of the Central Highlands' Ia Drang Valley, a few hundred U.S. soldiers found themselves surrounded by a few thousand North Vietnamese soldiers; and when the smoke cleared, several days later, there were bodies everywhere. We Were Soldiers, which is based on a 1993 book by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, has come both to praise and to bury those soldiers. Wallace, who tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in his script for Pearl Harbor (he also wrote Braveheart), takes us deep inside the hell of modern combat, the bullets whizzing past our brains. But he's also draped everything in a shroud of sorrow. It's less a war movie than a battle movie, less a battle movie than a memorial service.
Jutting out his jaw and adding a smoky rasp to his voice, Mel Gibson is Moore, the field commander who insisted on being the first to step onto the valley floor and the last to step off. And Barry Pepper is Galloway, a UPI photographer who had to trade his camera in for a rifle when the fighting got too intense. Discounting the fact that they themselves came out smelling like roses in their book, Moore and Galloway have done their country a valuable service by reminding us of the soldiers who laid down their lives in November 1965 ' especially valuable now that the war in Afghanistan is heating up again. But, as in the movie version of Black Hawk Down, there's a distressing lack of context in Wallace's bullet ballet. Why were we there in the first place? Should we have been there? When Moore's young daughter asks him what war is, back in the States, he tells her it's when somebody is killing somebody else and we have to go over there and stop them. Is that explanation supposed to satisfy us, too?
Both the war and the battle are blurry in We Were Soldiers. Wallace never really grounds us, despite titles like "The Ridge," "The Knoll" and "The Creek Bed." And it's difficult to get a sense of how things are going; the battle doesn't develop, it just continues. But that may be, in part, what Wallace is trying to tell us. In war, there's no big picture. It's just you and the guy next to you. And for the 20 or so guys (and exactly one woman) next to me last Monday, that seemed to be more than enough.