By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 1, 2010
Joe Galloway set the standard for today’s journalists. Whether he was reporting from Vietnam with General Hal Moore or the Persian Gulf with General Norman Schwarzkopf, or writing about the battles of today, his work has been steeped in honesty and integrity. He remains the only civilian to receive a medal of valor from the U.S. Army, for heroism during the Vietnam War—the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device. In 1991, he received a National Magazine Award for his U.S. News & World Report cover story “Vietnam Story.” With General Hal Moore, he wrote the classics We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young and We are Soldiers Still. I met Joe a few years ago in Los Angeles. It was an honor—not a meeting to be forgotten.
SP: In last week’s Creative Process interview, I mentioned to General Hal Moore that many of the readers of this series are artists and entrepreneurs, waging personal battles to succeed in their individual fields. The military is often the last place they’d think to look to for advice on how to think creatively under fire. In a Digital Journalist article, you wrote:
“You cannot always remain a witness, above and removed from the story you are covering. There are some events which demand your participation. The battle of Landing Zone XRay was one such event in my life.”
In your decades of covering the military, you’ve seen people jump in within seconds, as you and medic Tommy Burlile did to try to save the life of Jimmy D. Nakayama. But in other instances, people pause.
What is it within you that’s always made you jump in—from putting your own life on the line while trying to save the life of another, to being “there” to get the story that needed telling? What’s kept you from pausing? Aside from the rights and wrongs of the different situations, what inside you has made you jump?
JG: You ask me to analyze what has always made me jump when others might pause. Tough question. I’ve always been competitive and 22 years at United Press International (UPI), the now defunct news wire service, only sharpened that edge. UPI’s motto was always: A Deadline Every Minute. You learned to move fast, get the story fast and first, write fast and leave The Associated Press in the dirt.
When I went to Vietnam to cover the war in the spring of 1965 I had just turned 23 years old. I spent my first seven months covering the U.S. Marines. The learning curve is steep in combat. You learn to read a situation, or a man, instantly and if you are wrong it can cost you your life.
At the core, down deep, is a willingness to act on instinct when the situation leaves no time for chewing things over or searching the memory for a textbook solution. I trust my instincts. They are the sum total of all I know, all I have read, all I have experienced, all I have learned. Instinct has served me well all my life. It has permitted me to jump when others might not, and survive to tell the stories.
SP: Why did you choose to cover the military? You were still a teen when you started out as a journalist, and just into your 20s when you asked to go to Vietnam. Many of us struggle with our careers well into adulthood. What made you so sure at such a young age? And how prepared were you when you jumped out of Bruce Crandall’s helicopter November 14, 1965?
JG: I was fairly certain by 1963 that Vietnam was about to become an American war, my generation’s war, and I wanted to report on that war. In my youth I had read a collection of Ernie Pyle’s World War II columns and I knew that if I became a reporter, and my generation had its war I wanted to cover that war like Ernie Pyle covered his war—from as far forward as possible.
I had my first taste of reporting on my high school newspaper, and quit college after six weeks. I was 17 and on my way to the recruiting office to join the Army, dragging my mother along to sign the papers because I was so young. We drove past the daily newspaper, The Victoria Advocate, just two or three blocks short of the Courthouse and the recruiters, and my mom asked: “What about your journalism, Joe?” I told her to stop the car, walked in and asked the managing editor for a job. He hired me on the spot. I loved everything about the life and never looked back.
As for how prepared I was when I jumped off the Huey on November 14, 1965, I believed I could handle whatever was thrown at me. Everyone I had marched with for the previous seven months had seen to that. I carried all I needed on my back—poncho and poncho liner, a change of underwear and socks, four canteens full of water, some instant coffee packs, two Nikon F cameras, four lenses, black and white and color film, notebooks, an M16 rifle and 20 loaded magazines, a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38 special belt gun and a box of ammo, and two books—Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy and T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War.
I had earlier flown over the LZ XRAY battlefield in Col. Tim Brown’s command helicopter and had seen just how intensely the battle was raging below. I knew what was waiting for me there: the major battle I had been searching for the past seven months. I had turned 24 the day before; I was young and thought I was immortal, if not bulletproof. I knew I was the only reporter getting in to cover this fight; I knew I had left Peter Arnett of The Associated Press, my competition, miles behind and was about to give him the biggest ass-kicking of his career. I was ready and happy to be on that helicopter.
SP: In a Ia Drang panel, you discussed meeting General Hal Moore, and how you ended up on that helicopter in:
“I spotted and recognized Hal Moore’s S3, his operations officer, Matt Dillon, and I grabbed him and I said ‘Matt, I need to get in there.’ And he said ‘Joe, I’m going in as soon as it is dark, with a couple of helicopters full of ammo and water, but I can’t take you without Col. Moore’s say so.’
“And I said ‘Well, get him on the radio.’ And I followed him and we went into a little GP medium tent, which was the battalion rear, and he got on the radio, and in the middle of the fight, he’s talking to the colonel and he’s telling him, I’m coming in and here’s whose coming, and here’s what I’m bringing and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, that reporter Galloway wants to come in too.’ And Hal Moore, God bless him, said ‘If he’s crazy enough to want to come in here, and you’ve got room, bring him along.'”
Since then, you’ve continued to cover America’s battles abroad. How has the media/military relationship changed and/or stayed the same? How did you adapt through the years, to continue to “get the story?”
JG: Relations between the military and the media have always been difficult, if not openly adversarial. In more than four decades of covering wars and our military I’ve come to see relations between the two institutions as resembling the pendulum on an old clock, moving very slowly back and forth between good and bad, warm and ice cold. One thing which has changed is the level of control the military exerts on the media. Vietnam was the most openly covered war in our history. There was no censorship and only the most rudimentary of rules. You turned up in Saigon with a letter from some publication and in a day or two you had your U.S. and South Vietnamese military press cards. You were required to sign a single sheet of paper with five or six very basic “operational security” rules you agreed to follow: I will not report troop movements while they are still underway. I will not report the actual number of friendly casualties in a battle while the battle is still underway. In eight years of the American war in Vietnam, 1965–1973, I believe only six or seven correspondents ever had their credentials revoked for violation of those rules.
The next big operation was Grenada and that little war took place without a single reporter or photographer on the ground with the American forces. When the media threatened to hire boats and come anyway, the admiral commanding responded: If they do sink them! This was a modern low point in the struggle, matched in history only by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s threat to hang any reporter he found in his area of operations as an enemy spy.
This led to creation of a ready reaction media pool of a hand full of press subject to activation and movement by the Pentagon in a few hours time. The pool was activated for the Panama invasion, flown to the scene and then was locked up in a hangar on an air base and kept there until the mini-war was over.
The Persian Gulf War saw more than 1,000 news people turn up in Saudi Arabia to cover the impending action at a time when the military was planning to create ten pools of ten media people each, just 100 war correspondents to cover three-quarters of a million allied troops on land, air and sea. Each of the pools would have its own official minder, usually a colonel, who had the authority to censor pool reports. At the last minute the number of pools was increased to a total of 15; the number of press people to 150.
That didn’t work very well at all for either side. The media was largely shut out of covering combat. The system for collecting pool reports and film was a single officer who made a daily run by humvee some 200 miles along a road on the Saudi-Kuwait-Iraq border and then hitched a ride on a plane bound for Dharan and the media headquarters in the International Hotel. Between the outright censorship and delayed reports, the U.S. Army high command awoke to find it had virtually no tape or photographs of the tank battles in Kuwait and Iraq.
The pendulum began to swing back toward better relations as a consequence. With planning for the first U.S. troops entering Bosnia, the terms “embed” and “embedded reporter” were first heard—and the Army was now welcoming media who were willing to join a unit being deployed for a long stay, several weeks instead of a day or two.
By the time of the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, embedding journalists with military units was in full flower—more than 730 media would go to war alongside the troops. But to qualify, they were required to sign a 36-page, single-spaced, double-sided document that spelled out what they could and could not do on pain of being expelled from their unit and from the war.
As for me, I was viewed and treated differently by the military, even when they were really pissed at the press. I had almost literally grown up with soldiers and Marines. I liked them and treated them fairly and dealt with them honestly, and I was waved through gates that were closed to others in my profession. Along the way my co-author and best friend, Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, and I gave literally hundreds of speeches at the military academies, war colleges, staff colleges, captain’s courses. Thousands of officers heard those talks and, through them, got to know us.
Whenever I went on military operations, whether the Haiti incursion or two recent tours in Iraq, there were always friends there among the senior NCOs and officers at all levels.
SP: I’ve done a lot of research for my own writing in the past, but I’ve never had to face people who were, years earlier, killing those around me. In the Digital Journalist article mentioned above, you wrote:
“On the 1993 documentary trip Hal Moore and I and half a dozen other American veterans of the battle went back to XRAY and ALBANY in company with half a dozen North Vietnamese generals and colonels who had fought against us there. Together we walked those old battlefields and agreed that those events of November, 1965, had been pivotal in all our lives. We have broken bread with them in their homes in Hanoi. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t lived it, but in a strange sort of way we are blood brothers. There is no hatred; only a shared relief that at least some of us survived to carry the memories of those who died, and bear witness to the horror of this war and all wars.”
How did you feel going back into Vietnam to meet with North Vietnamese leaders, while researching We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young? When you were researching, did you find that how you remembered things, weren’t so? Or did many of you remember the same thing?
JG: On our first trip to Hanoi in 1990 researching the book, Hal and I talked about how we might be received on the long flight across the Pacific. We hoped to meet and interview men we had fought; men who did their best to kill us, as we did them. We were flying to the enemy capital which our country had bombed. We had no idea how we would be received, and so we were a bit nervous. But on that trip, and subsequent trips in 1991 and 1993, we were always warmly received both by civilian officials and the military men we met, from Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap to Maj. Hao, who was one of our minders on the trip to LZ XRAY and ALBANY.
Both we and they were full of questions about those three days in November 1965. The answers at times surprised the questioners, again on both sides. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Hu An, Gen. Moore’s opposite number in command on the battlefield at XRAY, was genuinely surprised to learn that Moore was not in command at LZ ALBANY and that it was not Moore’s 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry but a sister battalion, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, which his troops ambushed at LZ ALBANY, on November 17, with such deadly effect.
In our interviews of the American veterans of the Ia Drang battles, we found that the individual soldier’s recollection of what happened in that small slice of territory around his foxhole or position was near letter perfect. Hal and I had determined from the beginning that we would do our best to get the soldier’s-eye view of our battle. Conventional wisdom holds that an Infantryman only sees a tiny slice of a battle—maybe ten yards either side and 20 yards in front of his foxhole. That’s true, but if you can get the story of each soldier, foxhole to foxhole, around the entire perimeter, you will get the true story of that battle. And each soldier’s story and memory can be checked against what the guy in the next foxhole saw and remembers.
SP: General Barry McCaffrey said:
“Joe Galloway has more time in combat, under fire, than anyone wearing a uniform today. He rode along on the 24th Division’s tank charge through 250 miles of the western Iraq desert in the Persian Gulf War, and did a splendid job of telling the story.”
You’ve covered battle after battle since Vietnam, putting your own feet on the ground. In the past few years, you’ve criticized the leadership behind our current battles. When you don’t agree with a war on a personal level, how do you cover it with an even hand, as a journalist? In your column following the death of Robert McNamara, you wrote:
“Back in 1990 I had a series of strange phone conversations with McNamara while doing research for my book We Were Soldiers Once And Young. McNamara prefaced every conversation with this: “I do not want to comment on the record for fear that I might distort history in the process.” Then he would proceed to talk for an hour, doing precisely that with answers that were disingenuous in the extreme—when they were not bald-faced lies.
“Upon hanging up I would call Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam and run McNamara’s comments past them for deconstruction and the addition of the truth.
“The only disagreement I ever had with Dave Halberstam was over the question of which of us hated him the most. In retrospect, it was Halberstam.
“When McNamara published his first book—filled with those distortions of history—Halberstam, at his own expense, set out on a journey following McNamara on his book tour around America as a one-man truth squad.
“McNamara abandoned the tour.”
Before you started writing your opinion column, how did you keep your personal opinions out of your reports? How did you keep it even?
JG: I never had a problem separating my personal opinions from the news stories I was writing. I grew up working for UPI, a worldwide news agency. There was never any room for personal opinions in a UPI news story. Never. I spent 22 years with UPI, and my next employer for almost 20 years was U.S. News & World Report magazine. The editors at U.S. News, at least during the first part of my time there, believed strongly in presenting the facts and letting your reader make up his own mind about the issue at hand. The top editor at Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau was Clark Hoyt, who had a well deserved reputation as one of the straightest shooters in the business. He even kept some of my angriest opinions out of my opinion column, counseling me to always keep an even keel and bring the reader along by presenting the facts in a clear, concise way.
SP: You’ve been a leader within the journalism and military community, and you’ve known legendary leaders in the military community as they’ve risen—such as General Norman Schwarzkopf, whom you met in Vietnam, and then went on to cover, and embed with during Desert Storm. Most recently, General McChrystal has been in the news, with people questioning his leadership skills. What’s your advice to our next generation of leaders, both civilian and military? What is it that has worked for you and for others?
JG: Whether you are leading an Army, a battalion, a platoon, a Fortune 100 corporation, or a one-man band, the principles and ethics of leadership are fairly simple and straight-forward. It is following them consistently, year after year, for a lifetime that is somehow difficult.
I’ve been fortunate to see some great military commanders at work, close hand, and while all of them keep a flexibility of mind that allows for changing situations, those leaders hew to the same high personal standards with little visible change over the decades.
By this I speak specifically of Generals Hal Moore, Norm Schwarzkopf, Sam V. Wilson and Barry McCaffrey, all of whom I count as personal friends, comrades-in-arms and mentors. I would trust any of them with my life, and have done just that many times over the years.
What are some of the traits these leaders share?
They speak the truth to those they lead—calmly, clearly and consistently—and they expect to hear the truth in return.
They lead by example, asking no man to do something they would not do themselves, have not done themselves many times before.
They push the power down but follow up to make sure the job is getting done right. They also push the rewards and acclaim down to those who did the job. They are aware that, while the power can be pushed down, the responsibility always rests with them.
They praise their people publicly; offer criticism or corrections in private. They respect the dignity of those who work with and for them.
They are leaders who believe that studying, learning, reading does not end at the exit door of the last school they attended. They know that this is a life’s work and never ends. My friend Hal Moore, now 88, spends most of his waking hours with stacks of newspapers on one hand, and stacks of books on the other, working his way through them diligently.
They have all lived long enough to see both our country and the world change greatly, and not always for the better. None of them are afraid to speak up, from retirement, when asked for their opinion of some of these changes. None of them were afraid, when serving, of engaging with the media, one-on-one or in large groups.
None of them had or has a political bone in their bodies. Not one of them, in retirement, ever sought elected office. Not one of them, in uniform, ever spoke ill in public or in private of the elected political leaders. Not one ever challenged the ideas of civilian control of the military power delineated by our founding fathers.
All of them are men of action who know first-hand the horrors of war and the sacrifices that military service demands. They know that the deadliest work is done at platoon and company level, by young lieutenants and captains, and that if there is any disagreement between what they report and what the bean-counters in the rear believe, they give the benefit of any doubt to those who are doing the work.
All of them have strived, all their lives, to be men of character whose moral standards are the highest. Three are West Pointers whose belief in that unique school’s code—I will not lie, steal, cheat or quibble, or tolerate those who do—is as constant as their belief in Duty, Honor, Country. They know these things are inseparable and good, easily read guideposts to their personal conduct. The fourth, Gen. Wilson, graduated from a different school—at 17 he was a lieutenant leading the scout platoon of Merrill’s Marauders in Burma—but one whose standards were every bit as high as those at West Point. Wilson went into Burma with 2,000 fellow Americans; he was one of 200 who came out on their own feet.
I am proud of all of them and hope that our nation shares some of that pride. These are surely times that cry out for good leaders. Such men and women can be found in all walks of life, but we must learn to hold them to the high standards demanded by perilous times. The price of failure to meet the challenges of good leadership today will be paid by our children and grandchildren.