Friday, May 15, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: A Look Back At Robin Moore's Classic Vietnam War Story, 'The Green Berets'

I recently spoke to a retired Green Beret about his early influences and why he chose to spent most of his life training foreign soldiers and performing combat and espionage operations in several wars overseas.

Like me, he came of age during the Vietnam War, and he served several tours of duty in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He said he was heavily influenced by Robin Moore’s The Green Berets. (The above photo is of Robin Moore while in Vietnam in 1964).

As May is National Military Appreciation Month, I wanted to look back at Moore’s classic novel of combat, espionage, intrigue and heroism.

The novel was based on his true experiences with the Green Berets in the early 1960s in Vietnam. Moore’s book, along with the hit song Moore co-wrote with Barry Sadler, The Ballad of the Green Berets, and the John Wayne film based on Moore’s book, influenced scores of young men who went on to become Green Berets or served in the military in other capacities.

In the 2007 updated edition of The Green Berets (Skyhorse), Moore wrote that it was heartening to hear men tell him that they read the book in high school and then decided to become a Green Beret. Moore wrote that his reaction to state,"Then I have not lived in vain."

Moore also knew what he called "the equally discordant experience" of having women tell him that their son read the book, joined Special Forces, and were killed in action.

In addition to inspiring future Green Berets, Moore also inspired many young, aspiring writers who went on to cover the military. I was one.

Moore died last year at the age of 82 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which is home to Fort Campbell and the U.S. Army's 5th Special Operations Group.

Moore was born Robert L. Moore, Jr. in Massachusetts in 1925. At 19 Moore served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a nose-gunner on a B-17 bomber during WWII. He attended Harvard University after the war, graduating in 1949. While a student at Harvard, Moore wrote a series of articles on post-war Europe for the Boston Globe. Although he initially worked for his father, a co-founder of the Sheraton hotel chain, Moore left to become a writer.

After publishing a book on Cuba, Moore wanted to write about the then-little known Green Berets. At age 37 Moore graduated from the U.S. Army's Airborne School and the Special Warfare Center - the first and only writer to do so. He arrived in Vietnam on January 6, 1964 and spent six months with the Green Berets in combat.

Moore said he planned the book to be a factual account based on personal experience and firsthand knowledge, but he later decided that there were disadvantages to a straight reportorial approach. Although he noted that he stories were based on fact, he offered his tales of the Green Berets in the form of fiction.

Writing the forward to the 2007 edition of the book, Major General Thomas R. Csrnko noted that there were many accounts of the Green Berets by historians, scholars and writers. He stated that bystanders watching the men in action barely scratch the surface.

“Robin Moore is not a bystander,” Csrnko wrote. “He is the first and only civilian to have the unique understanding of the men of the Special Forces because he was granted the opportunity to complete a year of Special Forces training by a leader now known as the ‘Father of the Modern Green Berets,’ Lieutenant General William P. Yarborough.”

Csrnko wrote that Yarborough credited Robin Moore with making the term “Green Beret” a household word both among his fellow Americans and around the world.

Moore’s fact-based novel reads like a thriller. Moore offers stories of Green Berets defending remote outposts against overwhelming odds. He also tells of a lone Green Beret who “went native” and lived and fought alongside the Meo tribesmen in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao.

Moore also tells the tale of how the Green Berets recruited a beautiful Vietnamese woman whose parents had been slaughtered by the Viet Cong. Using her as bait, they captured a Viet Cong Colonel in a daring snatch operation. The novel is part adventure, part history.

Moore went on to write another classic book, the true crime story, The French Connection, as well as other books, but he often returned to the Green Berets. With co-author Michael Lennon, Moore wrote The Wars of the Green Berets: Amazing Stories from Vietnam to the Present (Skyhorse), and even with advancing age and illness, Moore traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq and wrote The Hunt for Bin Laden (Random House) and Hunting Down Saddam (St. Martin's Press).

Moore's books shine a light on the battles fought by the Special Forces in Vietnam and elsewhere and how their special skills, training and insight into counterinsurgency won them friends as well as the respect and fear of their enemies.

"Forty-odd years after the publication of Berets and the Warner release of John Wayne's movie, the worst fears of the 1960s and early 1970s Pentagon have become reality," Moore wrote in his introduction of the 2007 edition of the book. "Special Forces has become a branch of the U.S. Army like artillery, signal corps, engineers and infantry, among others," Moore continued. And, as the reader will discover, the final chapter of this revised edition is a short biographical sketch of former Green Beret, General Henry Hugh Shelton, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest post in the U.S. military."

Today, thanks in part to Robin Moore's book, U.S. Army Special Forces and other Special Operations groups are in the forefront of the war on terrorism.      

Note: The above column originally appeared at

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