The war correspondent Joe Galloway, who has died aged 79, just as the Afghanistan conflict of 20 years has reached its chaotic end, predicted such a finish long before. “Someone may be foresighted enough to see victory at the end of that hole in Afghanistan,” he said in an interview in 2011, “but I don’t. I don’t even know how you could define victory there, unless it is getting out alive.”
Galloway spoke from long experience with untenable wars. He began in Vietnam, where, in the Americans’ first major battle of that war, at Ia Drang in 1965, he became the only civilian awarded a Bronze Star medal, for rescuing a wounded soldier while under fire.
His account of the battle, We Were Soldiers Once … And Young (1992), written with General Harold Moore, became a bestseller and a 2002 film starring Mel Gibson as Moore and Barry Pepper as Galloway. It was the first of three times he would be portrayed on screen.
Four tours in Vietnam were included among Galloway’s 22 years as a reporter and bureau chief for United Press International (UPI), after which he joined US News & World Report, covering the 1991 Gulf war. Finally he became a columnist for McClatchy, onwer of nearly 30 newspapers in 14 US states, and a key part of its Knight Ridder agency coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Galloway became known as the “soldier’s reporter”. “I didn’t go over there to cover Saigon politics,” he said. “I was there to cover soldiers in the field.”
“As sources, he valued sergeants more than brand-name generals or political appointees,” said John Wolcott, his editor at Knight Ridder. His model was Ernie Pyle, the second world war correspondent who wrote about ordinary servicemen from within their foxholes, and Galloway seemed destined to search out soldiers.
He was born in Bryan, Texas, less than a month before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. His father, Joseph, enlisted immediately in the army; Joe Jr and his mother, Marian (nee Dewvell), did not see him again until 1945. The family then moved to Refugio, Texas, where Joseph Sr worked for Humble Oil.
At 17, although his mother persuaded him to enrol at nearby Victoria Junior College, Joe began working for the Victoria Advocate, a daily newspaper. Two years later he joined UPI in Kansas, and began lobbying fiercely to be sent to cover the growing conflict in Vietnam. In 1964, he was assigned to the Tokyo bureau; soon he was landing in Vietnam with the Marine Corps.
He had just turned 24 when he started travelling with the 1st Regiment of the 7th Cavalry, commanded by Moore, then a lieutenant colonel. He was already convinced the war was unwinnable. “If you read your Clausewitz [the military theorist] you knew you needed 10 regulars for each guerrilla,” he said. But as a UPI reporter he had to keep opinion out of stories, and he knew he could not tell the soldiers alongside him that they died for nothing. “I wished I could have written something so powerful, LBJ would have withdrawn,” he said.
Galloway sometimes carried a weapon in the field, saying he felt it unlikely the enemy would check his ID before shooting. When he met the Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi, Giap said: “Ah yes, the reporter who carried a rifle. I heard about you.”
After Vietnam, Galloway worked around the world for UPI. He was bureau chief in Moscow when the Soviets began their invasion of Afghanistan, and he mock-congratulated his contacts in the foreign ministry for finding the “one place for you to invade … so you could end up like we did after Vietnam”. He moved to US News, where in 1991 he won a National Magazine award for the articles about Ia Drang that eventually became his and Moore’s book. In 1992, he was one of the authors of US News’ Triumph Without Victory: The Unreported History of The Persian Gulf War.
His Bronze Star, with a V for valour, was awarded to him in 1998, 33 years after Ia Drang. In 2000 he began his column for McClatchey, and worked briefly as an adviser to the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, but in the buildup to the 2003 Iraq invasion Knight Ridder asked him to help report their coverage, which was almost alone among major US media in providing critical analysis of the Bush administration’s justifications of it.
The secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was so angry that he summoned Galloway to a meeting with the Pentagon top brass, accusing him of relying on retired sources who were out of the loop. Galloway told Rumsfeld some of those sources might be in the room with them. Asked afterwards by colleagues if that were true, Galloway laughed. “No, but it was fun watching ’em sweat like whores in church.”
In Shock and Awe, Rob Reiner’s 2017 film about Knight Ridder’s coverage, Galloway was played by Tommy Lee Jones. Edward Burns played him in the 2011 docudrama Vietnam in HD. In 2007, Galloway narrated a documentary, A Flag Between Two Families, about Ia Drang, and the following year he and Moore published a sequel to their first book, We Were Soldiers Still.
Galloway was a model for other journalists. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it, “he saw through the fog and the lies and the deception more clearly than anyone else”. Or, as Moore said, “he hated the war, but loved the warrior”.
Galloway is survived by his third wife, Grace Liem, whom he married in 2012, and by two sons, Joshua and Lee, from his first marriage, to Theresa Null, who died in 1996. His second marriage, to Karen Metzger, ended in divorce.