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Sunday, May 30, 2010

For Memorial Day: The Ballad of the Green Berets/SSgt. Barry Sadler

In the early days of the Vietnam War, writer Robin Moore--perhaps best remembered today as the author of The French Connection--wanted to write a book about the first generation of America's Special Forces.  Thanks to connections within the Kennedy Administration, Moore won the support and cooperation of the military and the United States government.  (Moore's own dedication to the project may be measured by the fact that, at the age of thirty-seven, he agreed to undergo nearly a year of rigorous Special Forces training before being allowed to go into the field.)  After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, however, the Pentagon came to be dominated by a faction that was deeply suspicious of elite units within the military--notably Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester.  They objected to the idea that a civilian author had been given complete access in order to "glorify" the Special Forces.  Despite their oppostion, Moore's book The Green Berets: The Amazing Story of the U.S. Army's Elite Special Forces Unit was published in 1965.  For a variety of reasons, it was categorized as fiction, but Moore stood by the veracity of his account.  "You will find in these pages many things that you will find hard to believe," he wrote.  "Believe them.  They happened this way.  I changed details and names, but I did not change the basic truth."  The Pentagon demanded that the publisher put a yellow band on the cover of the book reading "Fiction Stranger Than Fact?" and Sylvester--who had pulled Moore's security clearance just two weeks after President Kennedy's death--even went so far as to suggest that Moore be indicted and tried for revealing top secret information, though ultimately no legal action was taken.  However, all this served to fuel publicity and The Green Berets became a bestseller.  It was then that Moore met Barry Sadler, who was recovering from a leg wound suffered in Vietnam.  In an Introduction to a 1999 reissue of the book, Moore writes:

When Special Forces medic Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler came to me with a tape he had made of his singing and twanging on a guitar The Ballad Of The Green Berets I helped Barry rewrite the words and found a professional to work on the music.  We persuaded RCA Victor to record the song and have Barry sing it on The Ed Sullivan Show.  The Ballad became an instant number one hit on the charts and the Green Beret were indeed glorified, to a point where my old nemesis at DoD, Arthur Sylvester, forced RCA not to let me write the copy on the album cover or mention my  name.  I was, however, the co-author of the song and they couldn't take my name off the label.

The song, released in 1966, specifically honors James Gabriel, Jr., a Green Beret who was executed by the Viet Cong in 1962.  It is currently available on an album called Ballads of the Green Berets. Appropriately, a choral version of the Ballad was heard in The Green Berets, the 1968 film adaptation of Moore's book, co-directed by and starring John Wayne.  Moore went on to write many other books on a variety of topics, but he maintained his associations with the Special Forces community--and enjoyed their respect--until his death in 2008.

The Green Berets (Kindle Edition)

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