Book Review: “Hal Moore on Leadership,” by Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore and Mike Guardia
Published by Magnum Books, 155 pp. $19.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
In 1965 many Americans were still only vaguely aware of the fact that their country was fighting a war in Vietnam, but the year would nonetheless prove to be a pivotal time in that conflict. Starting in the summer of 1964 the war began to rapidly escalate, and with it so too did the American presence in the country. At the beginning of March 1965 the U.S. Air Force launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive aerial bombardment campaign intended to pound the North Vietnamese into submission. That same month, 3,500 Marines waded ashore at Da Nang; their arrival effectively signaled the beginning of the U.S. ground war.
Eight months later, in mid-November 1965, the Americans would fight their first major engagement with the NVA in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. One of the key actors in that drama was a 43 year-old career officer named Hal Moore, who at the time was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 1st Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry. The story of that battle is now well known, having first been told in Moore’s 1992 book We Were Soldiers Once….And Young, and later brought to the silver screen ten years later in the film of the same name.
Moore would survive his tour in Vietnam and go on to serve for another dozen years, rising to three-star rank and finishing his career in a senior staff appointment in Washington. In Hal Moore on Leadership, he shares the key life lessons that were learned on an odyssey that took him from West Point through two wars and a succession of command and staff appointments, ultimately leading to the most senior ranks of the U.S Army.
Hal Moore was born in Kentucky in 1922 to a family of modest means. His parents were devout Catholics who instilled in their children the importance of respect for authority and the value of hard work. Growing up during the Depression, Moore contributed to the family income by working a variety of different jobs, and during his free time he reveled in playing team sports that included baseball, football, and basketball. Inspired by his father, who was determined that his children would get a college education, Moore set his sights on attending West Point. He realized, however, that persuading a Congressman or Senator to offer him an appointment would be a tough sell, given the intense competition for places to the Academy.
Notwithstanding the admittedly long odds which he knew that he faced, Moore refused to give up his dream. His luck began to change in the summer of 1940, when he was offered a clerical job in Washington, working in the Senate Book Warehouse. Over the next two years Moore relentlessly lobbied elected officials who had unfulfilled appointments to West Point, hoping he would find a sympathetic politician who would grant the young man his wish. Fate intervened in late 1941 when, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress decided to double the number of cadets and midshipmen at the service academies. Finally, in 1942, Moore’s persistence paid off when at the behest of Congressmen Eugene Cox of Georgia he received the appointment he had long coveted, and in July of that year reported to the Academy.
Right from the day he arrived as a new cadet, Moore was immersed in an environment that was demanding and at times unforgiving, and one that would soon begin to shape the views about leadership which he would carry with him for the rest of his career. His two squad leaders during recruit training were a study in contrast; the first was a tyrannical brute who seemed to delight in tormenting and humiliating his underlings; the second was a demanding but dignified leader who set high standards for his recruits, and used his own personal example to inspire the new cadets to meet them. Moore and his squad mates would forever remember him as being “an early and excellent role model”.
At West Point, Moore did well with the military aspects of the program, performing well on field exercises and achieving the top score in his company with the M1 Garand rifle. Academics, however, were another matter. Moore enjoyed subjects like English and History, but he struggled mightily with the engineering-oriented aspects of the curriculum. After many late nights studying to keep his head above water, Moore graduated from an abbreviated three-year course in 1945, albeit with an academic standing that placed him well into the lower depths of his class. By the time they graduated, the war had ended and Moore and his classmates were disappointed by the realization that they would not be seeing any action. Nonetheless, Moore himself took great pride in having made it through the rigors of the Academy, and was equally thrilled to have secured a slot in the branch of his choice, Infantry.
After receiving his Second Lieutenant’s bars, Moore’s first assignment as a young officer would take him to postwar Japan, where he served with the 11th Airborne Division as part of the American occupation forces. His time in the Land of the Rising Sun would provide Moore with an education regarding the ins and outs of handling draftee soldiers in a peacetime Army, and it would also serve as an awakening to the importance of cultural sensitivity, During his service in Japan, Moore would be fortunate to soldier under some outstanding mentors and role models, notably General Joseph Swing, who was the Commanding General of his division. In the summer of 1948 he returned to the United States and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, where he would spend most of the next three years. It was during this time that Moore met Julia Compton, who had been raised in an Army family and was attending the University of North Carolina. The couple would marry in 1949, and would remain together for the next 55 years until Julia’s death in 2004.
Barely six months after Hal and Julia tied the knot, in June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel and soon thereafter the United States once again found itself at war. The peacetime Army was ill-prepared for the conflict, and the first few months of the war did not go well. In September, General Douglas MacArthur orchestrated an audacious landing an Inchon that saved the South Korean capital city of Seoul from being overrun, and for a brief period of time it looked like the tide of the war was beginning to turn. However, in the fall of 1950 the Chinese entered the war on the side of North Korean, and by the following summer the fighting had deteriorated into a stalemate reminiscent of the trench warfare of 1914 – 18.
It was into this environment that Moore, who by then had attained the rank of Captain, landed in the summer of 1952. Korea would be the place where he would experience his baptism of fire, and soon after arriving in country he took command of the heavy mortar company of the 17th Infantry Regiment. He quickly discerned that the unit had good soldiers in its ranks, but that the men’s morale had suffered mightily under the leadership of their departing CO, who was viewed as being an overbearing and self-serving careerist. Realizing the problems he was faced with, Moore immediately set to work shaping his new company up by fostering a new sense of teamwork among the officers and NCOs, and improving the living conditions of the ordinary soldiers. It wasn’t long before the members of the company began to respond enthusiastically to their new leader, and as their motivation improved, so too did the unit’s performance on the front line.
Moore would eventually remain in Korea for thirteen months, during which time he would command two different companies, serve as Operations Officer for his regiment, and earn a recommendation for early promotion to Major. Perhaps most importantly, he would also return home having learned some valuable lessons that he would later put to good use in Vietnam. One of the most significant of these related to the importance of never giving up hard-won ground, as retaking it would invariably result in more casualties than would be lost by holding it in the first place. Another important lesson related to the essential need for perpetual vigilance, especially at times when the situation seems calm. Evidently, Moore learned the hard way that it was under the cover of night and during periods of bad weather that the enemy was presented with the best opportunities for launching an attack.
Following his return from Korea Moore was posted to West Point for three years as an instructor in tactics. The next ten years of his career were in a succession of assignments that included periods of study at the Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Naval War College, staff duties at the Pentagon in the late 1950’s, and a posting to NATO’s Northern Headquarters from 1960 to 1963. His time at the Pentagon was an especially important formative experience for Moore. Working in a demanding job that involved long hours, high pressure, and tight deadlines, he had the opportunity to see how for the first time how the Army bureaucracy functioned, and to be exposed to decision making at the highest levels of the service. By that time the young Major had already been tapped as a rising star, and his stint at the Pentagon provided him with valuable exposure and enabled him to build relationships with influential mentors who would later help to advance his career. Much of his work focused on helping develop the new “airmobile” concept that Moore and his colleagues would later put to the test in Vietnam.
By 1964, Moore had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and the time had come for him to return to what he loved doing best: commanding soldiers. On June 29 of that year, in a ceremony at Georgia’s Fort Benning, he was handed the colors to the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry, which had been assigned to the recently reactivated 11th Air Assault Division. Speaking to the battalion’s 760 officers and men, Moore stated that henceforth their mission would be to become the best Air Assault Battalion in the division. “I will do my best” he informed the soldiers assembled in front of hm. “I expect same from each of you.”
Barely six weeks later, the USS Maddox was confronted by three hostile torpedo boats while conducting intelligence work off the coast of North Vietnam. On August 10, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Lyndon Johnson to order the use of conventional force in Southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war. It would prove to be a pivotal turning point in the course of the Vietnam War, and one that would set the stage for a rapid escalation in the Americans’ involvement during the months to come. As 1964 came to a close, there were approximately 23,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. Just twelve months later, the number of American military personnel in country had swelled to nearly 200,000.
One of the units that would be ordered to Vietnam during that fateful year would be Moore’s outfit, which in the summer of 1965 had been re-designated as the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, the same regiment that had been commanded nearly 90 years earlier by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. In June 1876, a few weeks after the Old Eighteen arrived at the newly opened Military College of Canada, the 7th Calvary had ridden into disaster at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Little did they realize it at the time they first set foot in Vietnam in mid-September 1965, but just two months later the troopers under Moore’s command would take part in another critically important battle, this time with an outcome very different from the one that had befallen their predecessors.
The Ia Drang Valley was located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a desolate region which lay inland approximately midway between the coastal city of Da Nang and the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. The region was strategically important because few roads led into it, and consequently its relative isolation offered the communist insurgents a safe harbor from which they could operate. The Central Highlands had, in fact, been the place where the North Vietnamese had won a major victory over the French in 1954 at the Battle of Mang Yang Pass. When the Americans arrived in force eleven years later, they concluded that the region would be an ideal environment in which to test the new “airmobile” tactics that had been developed over the previous decade in the United States.
The battle itself involved two successive engagements which were fought over control of two helicopter landing zones designated respectively as LZ X–Ray and LZ Albany. Moore’s unit was tasked with defending the former, and their ordeal began on the morning of November 14, when their position came under attack by the North Vietnamese. The Americans were heavily outnumbered, and their position in the landing zone meant they could be reinforced and resupplied only by helicopter lifts. Notwithstanding the long odds they faced, the troopers of the 7th Cavalry fought back ferociously, and by the end of the day on November 16, they were able to report that the enemy onslaught had collapsed, and that LZ X-Ray was secure.
The battle was seen as an American success, and one that validated the effectiveness of the newly developed airmobile tactics which had been put to the test in combat for the first time. The victory came at a cost of 79 U.S. soldiers killed and 121 wounded, but these numbers paled in comparison to the casualties that the North Vietnamese had suffered in their failed attempt to take the landing zone. Moore’s men counted the bodies of 634 enemy soldiers killed, and estimated that an additional 1,200 had been lost due to artillery bombardments and airstrikes. In the aftermath of the battle three men – platoon leader 2nd Lieutenant Walter Marm and helicopter pilots Captain Ed Freeman and Major Bruce Crandall – were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions. Moore himself would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism and gallantry in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army”. (See here for a video clip from an interview with Moore following the battle in Ia Drang Valley.)
Moore would go on to survive his tour in Vietnam and return home to the United States in the summer of 1966, where his next job would be a posting in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense. In 1968, he would become the first member of his West Point class to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, and as his career progressed he would later add two more stars to his epaulets. He was never again destined to lead soldiers in battle, but instead would hold key command appointments first with the 7th Infantry Division in South Korea and subsequently at the Infantry Training Centre at Ford Ord, California. He returned to the Pentagon and spent the final three years of his career as Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, retiring in the summer of 1977 after 32 years of distinguished service.
Over the 35 years from the day he arrived at West Point as a plebe to the day he hung up his General’s uniform for the last time, Hal Moore experienced enough to last a dozen lifetimes. As a career officer, he served in a succession of increasingly responsible command and staff appointments; as a warrior, he proved his mettle under fire leading soldiers in two wars; as an American, he lived through an astonishing amount of change in both the Army he was a part of and the nation whose mission it was to serve. Along the way, he accumulated numerous hard-won lessons in leadership which stood him in good stead throughout his career, and prepared him to stand and deliver in the heat of battle. Hal Moore on Leadership is a compact, highly readable compendium of practical advice and insights that deserves a place on every Canadian officer’s bookshelf. The book is a veritable treasure trove of nuggets of wisdom about the art and practice of leadership, drawn from the life story of one of the most remarkable soldiers who ever served in the ranks of the United States Army.