The 450 Army troops land in the valley in a place the military calls LZ X-Ray. They come in by chopper, spread out, & start looking for trouble. They neither know the terrain, nor the movements of the enemy. Soon they find a deserter who tells them they’ve come to the right place. Soon, they come under fire. They manage to establish a circular perimeter, then they have to fend off the enemy.
They stay there for two days, one night. They fight off two major attacks. We see both the American & the Vietnamese way of war. The Americans get in & out because of their great mobility, which in the case of jungles means helicopters. Otherwise, the terrain is very tough on advancing infantry & armored vehicles, so the greatness of the great American arms is not on display. The Americans defend themselves by calling in artillery of all sorts: air strikes, ground artillery from a nearby outpost, & they supplement it with machine guns, aircraft strafing, gunships, & eventually a call for all available aircraft to come & save them. Technology is on the side of the Americans.
The Vietnamese, on the other hand, are relentlessly willing to die. They send in attack after attack, despite the inferiority of their arms. The bodycount in such wars must always be much higher for the inferior arms than for the superior arms. But the bodycount does not reflect the willpower & the strategic conception. Everybody knows, Americans withdrew their armies from Vietnam &, soon enough, the invading, Communist North conquered the South & washed the country in seas of blood. There is a connection between the willingness to die & the resolve to slaughter, of course.
How possibly could such a war have been lost? The soldiers are shown to have done their job. Inasmuch as the military depends on the economic & technological strength of the country, also the country as an economic enterprise did its job. Further, the officers seem to have been competent in dealing with the situations they faced. The logistical superiority of the Americans more than made up for the tactical & operational advantages the Vietnamese had in knowing the terrain better.
We are only shown glimpses of the answer: The American command was divided. Nobody had decided what victory would mean & what was to be done to achieve it. Without this knowledge, war is not an art & courage does not become political courage, but means only that soldiers stood their ground. The journalist telling the story tells us America never understood this war. – Because the war was lost in America. The film quietly points to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.