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Disaster in the Making

by Mackubin Thomas Owens

Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp., $30)

When General William Westmoreland died in July 2005, I wrote on National Review Online that he had been “an honorable man and a noble soldier,” but unfortunately “not a great soldier.” I said he shared responsibility with Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara for the defeat in Vietnam: “He implemented an operational approach to the war that was destined to fail.” In his new book, Westmoreland, Lewis Sorley validates my offhand observation, offering a scathing critique of Westmoreland’s generalship and making clear the way in which Westmoreland was absolutely the wrong man for the job in Vietnam.

Sorley, a career Army officer who also earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, is the author of two other highly regarded biographies of Army generals — Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland’s successor in Vietnam, and Harold Johnson, the Army chief of staff from 1964 until 1968 — as well as A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999), a pathbreaking study of Abrams’s conduct of the war.

A Better War established Sorley as one of the foremost Vietnam revisionists, those intrepid souls who have called into question the narrative that has long dominated both academia and the press: that the Vietnam War was immoral and unwinnable — at best a strategic error, at worst a brutal, imperialist war of aggression, and in any case, a tragic mistake. Sorley’s conclusion in A Better War was that the changes that Abrams pursued in conducting the war had put the U.S. on the path to victory until all was undone by the changes in the U.S. domestic political landscape in the aftermath of Watergate.

The picture Sorley paints in Westmoreland is not a pretty one. The general who emerges here was completely unsuited for the job he was assigned, representing the triumph of style over substance. The best that can be said of Westmoreland is that he was a prisoner of his own experience who lacked the flexibility to move beyond the things that he knew. This is not Sorley’s judgment alone, but reflects the observation of many of those who worked with Westmoreland before, during, and after his tenure in Vietnam.

Westmoreland can be seen as an example of the “Peter Principle,” the rule that in a hierarchy every individual “tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” But it is also true that the skills he brought to Vietnam were far more appropriate to the Central Front of NATO and that he lacked the flexibility or desire to adapt to the circumstances.

Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese Army forces in a “war of the big battalions”: multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such “search and destroy” operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could generally avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. And they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

A more flexible commander would have changed course. But Westmoreland was never able to objectively reassess his operational strategy in time to adjust it. Others saw this at the time. In 1964, when Westmoreland was first being considered for an assignment in Vietnam, one general privately warned that “it would be a grave mistake to appoint him”: “He is spit and polish. . . . This is a counterinsurgency war, and he would have no idea how to deal with it.”

It’s not that others did not provide Westmoreland with alternatives. As he was departing for Vietnam, Major General William Yarborough, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, sent him an eight-page memo from “one [West Point] classmate to another,” providing observations he believed would be of use to Westmoreland. “I cannot emphasize too greatly that the entire conflict in Southeast Asia is 80 percent in the realm of ideas and only 20 percent in the field of physical conflict,” he wrote. “Under no circumstances that I can foresee should U.S. strategy ever be twisted into a ‘requirement’ for placing U.S. combat divisions into the Vietnamese conflict as long as it retains its present format.”

“I can almost guarantee you,” Yarborough continued, “that U.S. divisions . . . could find no targets of a size or configuration which would warrant division-sized attack in a military sense. The key to the beginning of the solution to Vietnam’s travail now lies in a rising scale of population and resources control.” He concluded by observing that “nothing is more futile than a large-scale military sweep through Viet Cong country.”

But Westmoreland had already made clear his antipathy to Yarborough’s approach, criticizing “the obsession that President Kennedy and [then–Army chief of staff] General [Maxwell] Taylor had with our ability to fight small wars and to counter Khrushchev’s strategy involving ‘wars of national liberation.’” As Sorley observes, “Westmoreland had no intention of being captured or driven by such an outlook in his conduct of the war.”

In fact, Westmoreland’s firepower-intensive approach not only failed, it was also counterproductive, because it caused civilian casualties and thus disillusionment among the population, whose support was necessary to shore up the South Vietnamese government. As long as the people of South Vietnam saw themselves as the victims of violence on the part of the Saigon government and its American allies, Saigon could never gain the popular legitimacy it needed to govern. Westmoreland ignored the people in a people’s war.

But Westmoreland also helped to delegitimize the Saigon government directly by pushing the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) aside. He seemed to believe that Americans could run the war, bring it to a successful conclusion, and then hand South Vietnam back to the South Vietnamese, returning home in triumph. An unfortunate manifestation of his approach was his decision to deprive the South Vietnamese of modern weaponry. While Westmoreland ensured that Americans were issued the new M-16 rifle and other advanced military equipment, South Vietnamese forces had to depend on castoff WWII-vintage U.S. equipment. In head-to-head combat between ARVN forces and the Communists, the former were consistently outgunned.

One of Westmoreland’s most damaging decisions was to institute tours of duty that were too short — one year for U.S. troops and six months for commanders. The former ensured that every month, units lost their most experienced individuals and gained green replacements who faced a steep learning curve. The latter ensured that a commanding officer would be leaving his position just as he was learning his job.

What accounts for Westmoreland’s failures in Vietnam? Sorley provides some answers. First, he lacked the schooling and relevant experience to understand the war and devise a viable approach to prosecuting it. For example, he never attended an Army professional-education course, such as those offered at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and at the war colleges. As Lieutenant General Charles Simmons observed of Westmoreland during the latter’s tenure as Army chief of staff, “[he] was intellectually very shallow and made no effort to study, read, or learn. He would just not read anything. His performance was appalling.”

This lack of interest in the substance of his own profession is astounding. Sorley writes that “briefers were dismayed to find that Westmoreland would occupy himself during one-on-one deskside briefings by signing photographs of himself, one after another, while they made their presentations. Sometimes he would fall asleep while being briefed, leaving the panicked staff officer trying to decide whether to continue as though nothing had happened or wait until the general awoke before continuing.”

In addition, he lacked interest in any ideas that conflicted with his own. For instance, while in Vietnam, he dismissed the Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam — a study sponsored by General Harold Johnson that concluded that Westmoreland’s way of war was not working and could not work. He surrounded himself with like-minded people with backgrounds similar to his own, especially airborne. Thus there was little internal debate that might have led to a better operational approach.

Perhaps most important, Westmoreland underestimated the enemy’s staying power while overestimating that of the American public. He believed that he could inflict enough casualties on the Communists to cause them to lose heart with the war. But the large body counts that Westmoreland counted as “progress” did nothing to win the war. The Communists proved far more willing to absorb 1.1 million combat deaths than the U.S. was willing to suffer 57,000.

Westmoreland was oblivious to this point. On a visit to Vietnam, Senator Ernest Hollings, from Westmoreland’s home state of South Carolina, was told by Westmoreland: “We’re killing [the enemy] at a ratio of ten to one.” Hollings replied, “Westy, the American people don’t care about the ten. They care about the one.”

In A Better War, Sorley demolished the idea that the U.S. could not have won the war. In Westmoreland, he demolishes another myth, one popular among many veterans of the war and a substantial number of those on the political right: that the war was lost because of meddling on the part of politicians in Washington. Sorley makes it clear that Westmoreland, not Lyndon Johnson or even Robert McNamara, conceived and executed the operational strategy that guided conduct of the war. It was Westmoreland who chose to fight a “war of attrition,” who employed multi-unit sweeps and the lavish use of firepower, and who settled on “body counts” as the key metric of the war.

In his book Great Contemporaries, Winston Churchill wrote of Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force who had presided over the immense slaughter on the Western Front during the Great War, that “he surely was unequal to the prodigious scale of events; but no one else was discerned as his equal or his better.” Can the same be said of Westmoreland?

Sorley points out that Westmoreland was one of four candidates for command in Vietnam when the post became available at the end of 1964. The others were Harold K. Johnson, who became Army chief of staff; Abrams, who became vice chief of staff; and Bruce Palmer, who became the Army’s deputy chief of staff for operations. Any of them would have done a better job, and Abrams did in fact correct many of Westmoreland’s errors when he eventually succeeded him in 1968. But as Sorley has argued, by then Westmoreland’s approach had squandered the support of much of the American people, the Congress, and the media.

The dénouement of Westmoreland’s life is tragic. After the war, he settled his libel suit against CBS, fearing he would lose; he lost a campaign to become governor of South Carolina; and he lost in his attempt to restore his badly battered reputation, largely by trying to rewrite history. But the largest tragedy was the defeat in Vietnam that derailed the United States and its military for a generation. As Sorley shows, this defeat can in large measure be laid at the feet of William Westmoreland.

– Mr. Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and the editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His most recent book is US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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