The Better War that Never Was

SWJ-regular Gian Gentile reviews Lewis Sorley's Westmoreland at The National Interest​, attacking Sorely's support of the "better war thesis."

Did General Westmoreland lose Vietnam? The answer is no. But he did lose the war over the memory of the Vietnam War. He lost it to military historian Lewis Sorley, among others. In his recent biography of William C. Westmoreland, Sorley posits what might be called “the better-war thesis”—that a better war leading to American victory was available to the United States if only the right general had been in charge. The problem, however, is that this so-called better war exists mostly in the minds of misguided historians and agenda-driven pundits. ...

Westmoreland’s failure, like so many others during that tragic war, was his inability to see that the war could not be won at a cost that was acceptable to the American people. Just like the American generals of today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westmoreland in the end put too much faith in the efficacy of American military power when he should have discerned its limits.

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Tags : COIN, Sorley, Vietnam, Westmoreland

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Vietnam as I remember it (and others who weren't there don't)

I read the the review of Col. Gentiles review of the Sorely rehash of Gen. Westmorlands approach to Vietnam. Having read "A Better War" and having agreed with it (as it fit well into my recollections), I was surprised at Col Gentiles writing. So I went and read the entire review (defense?) by Col. Gentile. Based on my experience, he is incorrect in several areas.

How do I know? I and my friends and fellow officers were there. As an enlisted man in 1967 and a 1968 graduate of Infantry OCS who deployed in 1969 (to a MAT Team and ended up as a District Senior Advisor) I spent a lot of time preparing for and dealing with Vietnam. I also spent years afterward talking with my brethren and trying to get my arms around how and why we lost. Why do i care? I left friends behind (American and Vietnamese). I am one of the thousands of US Army officers who lost the first war we had lost in quite some time. My point being that My experience and my informal research give me some insight to this that many of the people who comment so glibly on Vietnam lack.

Anyway my two cents.

The difference between operations pre and post Westy was that someone finally figured out that the key, the weak point, that the VC and NVA had was logistics and intel AND came up with a plan to attack that point. The VC main force and NVA needed local intel and logistical support which was, in large part supplied by locals who lived in the hamlets and supported the VC. We called them the VCI.

The locals did not support the VC but if they failed to kowtow to them, then next time a VC unit came to the hamlet (and it was tough to keep them out at first) the VCI fingered the uncooperative ones and things got ugly. So, no surprise, they rolled over for the VC unless and until they saw that they could resist and not condemn their families.

The VCI moved freely, especially at night. Thats where we came in. The MATS, CAPS and the whole CORDS structure (like Phoenix) was NOT pointed at winning hearts and minds as Col Gentile states. It was pointed at the VCI. Any significant deterioration of their ability to support field units was valuable and that was our goal... To kill VCI. Our task was to give the Vietnamese the room to support the GVN, not because they liked it but because the GVN stole less than the VC and that was frequently sufficient.

Much of what we did was either undocumented or poorly documented (no embeds, very few reports, little supervision and no media unless you were in the MACV bar in Nha Trang) but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Constant searches for caches of weapons and supplies by our line units, rising mortality rates for VCI due to the efforts of local militia (MAT Teams, CAPs etc) were leaving the areas I worked in more and more "pacified" (stupid term as no part of Vietnam would be pacified until the north saw that the south could stand on it's own).

I am not sure WHO developed this approach of attacking the VCI but I do know that it had little too do with "winning hearts and minds" and I know it worked because I watched it work in my AO's. From my perspective the war WAS winnable. Our problem was that we started down the correct path too late and we lost the domestic US.

I think that it would be easier to lay "losing the US" on Westys doorstep than losing Vietnam but that is water under the bridge.

What is relevant today is that:
Nation building only takes place when and if the locals want one.
If we don't have that necessary precondition, then we ARE occupiers.
Line combat units are good at crushing large groups of insurgents.
Line combat units are an ineffective tool for attacking the infrastructure of an insurgency.

It is always interesting to read an analysis from someone who actually participated as an EM and Officer in ground operations in Vietnam.

I read Sorely's book quite a while ago and found it fascinating, but I know little at best about ground warfare, having been a Navy Officer during Vietnam-- other than how to respond to requests for Naval Gunfire support. Most of our activities were involved with the conflict directly against the North in support of SAR efforts, so called Sea Dragon occasional dueling with NVA shore batteries, in my case observing one gutsy but short lived 1966 North Vietnamese foray by three of their PT (Nasty class style) boats headed right into the middle of our area of operations, staying away one night in June 1968 from USAF F-4's apparently believing we were NVA helicopters??

One observation that was impressed upon me during my deployments into that area was how much stronger NVA responses to US attacks against North Vietnam became in 1968 versus 1966.

From the observations of a ground war novice I agree with your assessments of what is viable concerning "nation building."

However, given what happened after US main line units departed Vietnam, I would add several items to that list. It was apparent to those of us involved in actions against the North (plus probably everyone in the South), and from reading the amazingly accurate detailed intelligence digests we received, that even if driven out of South Vietnam Giap would repeatedly send his forces back into the South--especially given that they were left by treaty with areas of South Vietnam under their control. Add to that the US cutoff of US supplies to a cash short South Vietnamese government unable to pay for ammo, aircraft parts, and an inept and corrupt high level South Vietnamese leadership, it was clear they were doomed

Accordingly, once a nation building effort is deemed successful and US forces depart, we must:

Provide ongoing necessary logistical support to our ally.
Ensure the host nation maintains sufficiently sized ground and air forces capable of combating future enemy incursions, especially if one's opponents reside in a neighboring country.
Provide future air support at the level necessary.
Maintain some American forces as in Korea if the regime we put in place has a probability of being attacked by neighboring forces.

Absent being willing to provide this level of on going support, under certain conditions, as in Vietnam, regardless of local successes our efforts will come to naught.

The US would also have to willingly provide a substantially greater number of ground forces to any effort aimed at securing a nation under these operating conditions then provided by either Bush or Obama.

All these, however, are tactical considerations and presume that in the nation building effort being made this country has a national strategic interest worth securing, otherwise why bother given that budgetary funds poured into a strategically meaningless military effort could be better spent on developing needed weapons systems.

Finally, one observation from conversations with three career Army Officers I had an opportunity to converse with--whom had served multiple tours in Vietnam, Korea, and one in WWII. During one of their tours in Vietnam, each had been assigned as a liaison (their term) with ROK units. They described in detail how the ROK's drove the NVA / VC out of their area or operations and secured it using main line units, generally company sized patrols. During patrols on which they accompanied the ROK's, they noted that ROK Officers made observations about the population make up of a village Americans didn't / couldn't culturally notice and they described the ROK's responding ambush tactics and follow on punishment of villages they believed (probably accurately) that supported the VC. Apparently they were very effective--but certainly brutal. They also had a policy of no reporters in their area of operations for obvious reasons, which these Army Officers noted was part of their agreement with US forces for providing troops into Vietnam.

These officers, each of whom were then old timers, had come up through the ranks and were friends of my father--then a retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9) working as civilian for the army. I don't recall how he knew them, but he had originally been in the Army Field Artillery in the mid-1930's before enlisting in the Navy.

Even some of us old timers remain busy, so even though uncertain as to whether this will be read--your notation that: "Make sure it [participation in a conflict] really is worth it [a]nd give it your [nation's] all if it is[]," defines the problem with many of the now so-called COIN military / nation building efforts in which this nation has engaged during the post-WWII decades--whether the US has employed its volunteer military or its once heavily draftee staffed forces.

In our military assistance efforts of an anti guerrilla or counter-insurgency in Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, Bolivia and probably others we successfully achieved our objectives. On a different scale, our effort in Korea was also successful in sustaining that government's control over its territory. In each of these efforts the local population did not support the other side, they had standing military main line units, the government side was more popular than the alternative and (among other factors) we applied the necessary level of force to defeat our / their opponent. Absent Korea these conflicts required "comparatively" quantitatively small efforts on the part of the US. Generally these were provided by Army Special Forces Units and other supplementary technical and air support provided by the Air Force and the Navy, and of course involved the CIA. I would like to say that the governments we were supporting were democratic and truly popular, but that would probably be a stretch. One thing for certain, few people in this country realized (other than in Korea) that we were involved in these efforts.

While Korea was a far larger military effort, the South Korean government was far more popular with the people than that of the North, they had a standing army at the wars outset. It, like the initially arriving US Army divisions were overrun in the wars early stages due to the poor equipment such as the standard issue 2.75 inch bazooka which could not stop a North Korean Russian tank, etc. Also this was a conventional war on a peninsular which, once MacArthur was removed, facilitated the military strategy of Generals Ridgway and Van Fleet. Further, our objectives were limited and it ended in three years.

Vietnam, however, was a different story. As is sometimes remembered when President, Eisenhower asked General Ridgway to assess whether a US military effort in Vietnam supporting the French could reverse their deteriorating situation and defeat the Viet Minh, Ridgway's description of the massive commitment needed for success dissuaded Eisenhower from intervening. He realized the enormity of the ground forces and supporting air power that would be required to seize Vietnamese land and control its populations. Ridgway was correct. Lyndon Johnson and his whiz kid ally McNamara ignored that reality.

Presuming that for some political reason this nation wishes to conquer another country, its President needs to provide that effort "all" the ground manpower and supporting air and naval forces required to achieve success and allow those forces to apply the necessary explosive force where and when they determine its need. While that approach may temporarily enable this nation to militarily prevail in so-called insurgent areas such as Vietnam, once the US forces depart, those temporarily defeated forces of the "People's War" (to use their old term) will return and they will once again succeed for the same reasons they were previously prevailing.

Exhausted by the length or cost of the previous efforts we will not return, a la Vietnam, as there will be no strategic benefit to the area or we would not have left.

The military, whether today or during Vietnam, has to realize that the American population will not support a long war's cost in casualties and dollars for more than 3 or 4 (?) years. Therein lies the failing of our effort in Vietnam and in what became the COIN tactical efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This nation had no national strategic interest in Iraq whatsoever and, other than initially for some short term and limited goals, none in Afghanistan.

Your question that noted "If the side you favor is inferior and therefore losing, your efforts are doomed to fail[, h]ow can you possibly build a strategy on a foundation like that?" is well stated.

The answer is that just because we favor one side or the other does not mean that the US has a national strategic interest in their success. We certainly had none in Vietnam. It mattered not to this country's strategic welfare if the South Vietnamese (pro French remnants) prevailed or the Viet Mihn prevailed.

We should not get involved in a military contest where we have no national strategic interest. Improving the lot of locals in a foreign and backward part of the world is not in our national strategic interest nor worth the cost. It brings us no strategic benefit. The time for Crusades ended disastrously centuries ago.

Entering Iraq, for whatever reason, the US demonstrated the power of our (effectively) mobile infantry and armored forces and frightened dictators such as the Iranians world over. By remaining to repair the country and resorting to a rifle to rifle contest we lost that edge and convinced our enemies we can be drawn into a type of combat that will nullify the power of our high tech military machine.

In Afghanistan the US strategic objectives was to drive out Al Qaeda, kill bin Laden and company if possible, and punish the Taliban and their supporting locals so severely they would not allow Al Qaeda or the like to return. Driving out Al Qadea and punishing the Taliban was rapidly achieved. Relying on local forces in Tora Bora was probably a mistake, but I don't know if we could have positioned the 10th Mountain Division for that effort and supported it. Ground warfare was not my military area of expertise.

Strategically, we certainly could have realized the futility of assuming an under strength nation building campaign (i.e. a COIN effort) in a Pashtun area where the local population knew we would eventually leave. We could have supported the so called Northern Alliance tribal groups, strengthened their position, and there established bases from which to hunt down Al Qaeda via drones and Special Operations efforts. And if the Taliban decided to return without making amends in the Pashtun areas that is why we have B-52's and the like. A military approach along the lines proposed by former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Krulak would be the proper strategy.

We need to define success on our terms and realize that may often) require sacrificing the side we would like to see prevail over the long term, because their prevailing brings us no strategic gain--just valueless costs. One may like a product, but once it is no longer profitable, it is time to drop it or the business will go broke.

On a side note, the South Vietnamese I know spend half their time in Vietnam. They still have their property there, never taken from them, many of their family members are still there, and their former enemies welcome them back home. It is all about the economy. Like most Americans, they hold no grudge for one another. Their war is over.

Why do people fight for what they know is a lost cause? That is one of those questions for which we may never know the answer. Why did most of the pro-Czarist soldiers and officers remain fighting in Russia once it was obvious they were going to loose the Russian Civil War? Why did American Southerners most of who never owned a slave, let alone a plantation, fight and keep fighting once it was patently obvious they were going to loose that war and even if they prevailed most would not benefit. I don't know the reason.

And if the Taliban decided to return without making amends in the Pashtun areas that is why we have B-52's and the like. A military approach along the lines proposed by former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Krulak would be the proper strategy.

- CBCalif

I remember when George Will mentioned something like that in a column:

http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2009/09/general-krula...

I've never been in the military and I don't study strategy for a living or work for a think tank or anything like that, but in my own layperson study I never understand why we tend to do things in the most difficult way possible? Why our institutions feel the need to change entire "geostrategic situations" instead of working with those whose interests overlap ours in the most narrowly and carefully defined way? I mean, everyone would love to harness American power toward their own regional interests. Look at the way we pick sides in the Mid East. Apparently, we are all Saudi Arabia and Israel now, according to our politicos. And hey, I feel sorry for Israel in that neighborhood but our interests and theirs don't always overlap. Is it so terrible for me to say so? I have nothing against that country. The Saudi monarchy I don't have anything good to say about, so I'll leave it at that.

At any rate, it seems we are moving toward the only logical way to "be there" in Afghanistan, should we need to be there at all. Northern Distribution routes, relying on a purely monetary transactional relationship with Pakistan, quit trying to socially engineer the country, and keeping contact with those that oppose the most radical Taliban and their international transnational radical "buddies." Strange world.

Based on my personal experience, Colonel Robert Jones is correct: Any discussion of "winning" or "losing" in Vietnam that begins in 1965 is a fairy tale. I remain close friends with several (former) South Vietnamese career military Officers living in France. Former Majors and Captains each of whom led men in battle for at least 14 years and whom to a man never respected their Generals and political leaders. "Leaders" they refer to as thieves and incompetent.

A former Navy Officer from that era who participated a couple of times in that conflict, I always remember one night in the Officer's Club at NAS Pensacola in August 1965 when several of us were drinking along with a half dozen Vietnamese pilots. They were training to fly the A-1 Skyraider. Typical Americans we kidded them about a recent coup or attempt (?) by one of their Generals. They expressed their contempt for that general and in an ensuing discussion expressed the same derogatory view about all their generals other than General Nugyuen Cao Ky. They respected him, but thought he was politically to weak to make a difference.

Out of curiosity I asked them if there was any Vietnamese General they thought was competent and respected. One answered Vo Nguyen Giap--commanding the North Vietnamese Army, and all the rest agreed.

Giap had created a revolutionary army and led it in an anti-colonial struggle for national liberation and beat the French. These South Vietnamese Officers not only respected him for that achievement, they were proud of it.

We Navy Officers then couldn't have cared less about Vietnam and never expected to be heavily involved in their war. On the way out of the O-Club someone of our Navy group commented that whether they realized it or not, that war was over for the South Vietnamese.

Comparatively little combat was going on in Vietnam at the time and we didn't realize the cost we would pay for being ordered to intervene in a civil war backing the loosing side. Intervening while being encumbered by a faulty national policy, being required to implement a military strategy (at least against North Vietnam) that could not succeed, and being forced to tactically proceed as de facto dictated by LBJ / MacNamara through their detailed (target level) restrictions.

When one side in a civil war requires support from main line units of a foreign military to survive while the other fights a protracted struggle, absorbs its losses, and independently survives using a strategy of protracted struggle, the later will prevail after the foreign military units withdraw. Foreign military intervention backing the wrong side cannot COIN an eventual victory for the losing side.

Having apparently learned nothing from the US participation in Vietnam, we are now repeating the same errors in judgment in Afghanistan and (did) in Iraq. The end result will eventually be the same.

The problem posed here is that the logic of intervention becomes entirely circular. If the side you favor is superior and therefore winning, you don't need to intervene. If the side you favor is inferior and therefore losing, your efforts are doomed to fail. How can you possibly build a strategy on a foundation like that ?

When you think of the Vietnamese officers who now live in France, the obvious questions hold: Well, if their superiors were so very corrupt and incompetent, why did these people fight for their cause for 14 years. And why, having lost, do they now choose to live in France ? Is the war really over for them ?

No - in such a situation, if you do choose to commit your national power and prestige, there is no alternative but to see it through to the bitter end. Against all odds. Whatever the odds. There is no lack of friction here - the supply of naysayers who maintain that you can't win and that you should not even try is seemingly (but not really) infinite.

Make sure it really is worth it. And give it your all if it is.

The continuing fail in these discussions is that they refuse to look at COIN conflicts from the side we are supposed to be helping. It goes without saying that the members of the ARVN government (at least those who weren't cutting side deals with the other side), the Vietnamese Catholics and the Montangards all had a vested interest in the survival of the Republic of Vietnam. When they fought, how they fought, and why they fought should be of overpassing interest to us. And yet we continue to frame the issue as if what really matters - the true strategic center of gravity - is not the "hearts and minds' of the people we are supposedly defending, but the public opinion polls of the US electorate. Noted that the US is a democracy, and that going back to Athens, maintaining a rational strategy against the passions of the many is a "hard problem". If we are to continue to serve our constitutional form of government, this is a limitation we just have to deal with. Get over it and move out, soldier!
But the problem does get easier if we insist that not only can the people we help govern themselves, but that they fight along side us, that they fight their own battles. Not ours. We may find that despite the wonderfulness of our professional army, these are brothers in arms and worthy of our respect. But if there is no such trust, we are fighting a different kind of war, and must own up to that fact. There is no room for bigotry either on our side - or on theirs.

I believe the American people can, do and will understand these points if you approach them in the right way and level with them. Treating our commonwealth like wimps is a sure road to failure. Only in that case is the campaign lost before it starts. In this sense, COL Gentile makes a valid point, because whatever General Westmoreland's strategic and tactical flaws (and as a boy I grew up second guessing our strategy through the pages of my grandmother's US News and World Report), his attrition strategy could have worked in the strictly technical sense that there are many more Americans than there are Vietnamese. We spent a generation living down that legacy. It is time to move on.

I suggested on the Ink Spots blog that, to me, a potentially promising research agenda would involve scrutinizing the sources of Moyar's "Triumph Forsaken." I thought the book was really quite superb; that said, it also struck me as, perhaps, slightly polemical (more than just "slightly" polemical?). The depiction of Westmoreland in "Triumph" is extremely complimentary, and examining whether the sources drawn upon to create that depiction indeed support said depiction, might be worthwhile.

A larger point perhaps raised by COL Gentile's essay: does good strategy make a war's general(s) irrelevant, or, perhaps just slightly less provocatively, interchangeable?

ADTS

Mr Sorley made a good argument for his book on C-Span. But given COL Gentile's continued insistence to the contrary, I thought there might be another side to the story.

However, a brief search quickly led to an article by Dale Andrade and LTC James Willbanks, "CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future," from the March-April 2006 Military Review. This article makes a convincing case that the bulk of changes came under General Abrams watch...especially since he was already responsible to some degree for CORDS as the MACV Deputy to Westmoreland before assuming command.

http://smallwarsjournal.com/documents/milreviewmarch2.pdf

From the Andrade/Willbanks article:

"CORDS gains muscle. Sheer numbers, made possible by the military’s involvement, made CORDS more effective than earlier pacification efforts. In early 1966, about 1,000 U.S. advisers were involved in pacification; by September 1969—the highpoint of the pacification effort in terms of total manpower—7,601 advisers were assigned to province and district pacification teams. Of those, 6,464 were military, and 95 percent of those came from the Army."

"CORDS’ ability to bring manpower, money, and supplies to the countryside where they were needed was impressive. Some statistics illustrate the point: Between 1966 and 1970, money spent on pacification and economic programs rose from $582 million to $1.5 billion. Advice and aid to the South Vietnamese National Police allowed total police paramilitary strength to climb from 60,000 in 1967 to more than 120,000 in 1971. Aid to the RF/PF grew from a paltry $300,000 per year in 1966 to over $1.5 million annually by 1971, enabling total strength to increase by more than 50 percent. By 1971 total territorial militia strength was around 500,000—about 50 percent of overall South Vietnamese military strength. Advisory numbers increased correspondingly: In 1967 there were 108 U.S. advisers attached to the militia; in 1969 there were 2,243."

While numbers are not always relevant measures of effectiveness, these certainly seem to point to increased resources under Gen Abrams during CORDS/Phoenix. It also was a strategy, not a tactic. And it closely mirrors night raids in Afghanistan when coupled with the COPs near populations to gain intelligence and hold/protect vital areas.

The final evidence that efforts increased under Gen Abrams, is the article's description of communist perceptions of a change in strategy that was difficult for them to counter.

This does not mean General Westmoreland was at fault as who knows how Tet would have turned out if search and destroy had not already weakened the Viet Cong. But the CORDS/Phoenix effort after Tet certainly appeared to be effective. We also could have continued to bomb North Vietnam as necessary in 1975 as we did in the 1972 Easter Offesnive. Anyway you look at it, there had to be a better way than search and destroy that led to 58,000 dead Americans and 300,000 wounded.

Two thumbs up for Gian's review.

Any discussion of "winning" or "losing" in Vietnam that begins in 1965 is a fairy tale. If I were to pick one decisive turning point it would be when Ike cancelled the nation-wide elections in '56 and committed to building a separate state around Diem.

At the time we reasonably believed that Southeast Asia was at risk of falling domino-like to Sino-Soviet influence. We were also enjoying success at removing problematic governments and replacing them with ones of our own choosing. We had also just reinstated a 2-state solution in Korea. We did not understand the nature of Vietnam, nor the role of Communist ideology in motivating nationalist revolutionary efforts to get out from under foreign colonial control. We acted reasonably, but we did not understand the problem and we were wrong. This was about liberty and a quest for sovereignty, self-determination and legitmacy. We feared what that might bring, so we countered with illegitimacy, violations of sovereignty and governance of American chosing over Vietnamese self-determination.

We can argue tactics all day, but Gian is right. When one paints himself into a strategic corner at the outset, not amount of tactics is going to get him out. We later made the same mistake in Afghanistan and probably Iraq, and likely it will end with very similar effect. The politicians don't lose these wars at the end. They lose them at the beginning.

Bob,

Your dicussion of winning or losing brought to mind this telling line from Kenneth Waltz in 'Man, the State, And War':

Asking who won a given war, someone has said, is like asking who won the San Francisco earthquake. That in wars there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat is a proposition that has gained increasing acceptance in the twentieth century.

Cheers

Mark

That all sounds very noble but the motivation of the Vietnam Communist Party was a little more base. They wanted to run the place without any domestic competition. They fought for 20 years after the French left to eliminate any opposition to their forcible imposition of a totalitarian socio-political sustem upon the nation. Repeating the Party line as it was spoken ad nauseum 50 years ago doesn't make it true.

The motivation of the Communists was acquisition of total power.

Using the words liberty, self-determination and legitamacy to describe a murderous police state is laughable.

Colonel Gentile's most important point is at the end of his review:

"The essential insight from Vietnam is that the crucial elements in war are not smarter tactics, better generals or more malleable popular support but clear-headed thinking about policy and strategy that aligns ways, means and ends relative to national interests, national will and the enemy’s potential. In Vietnam, the United States failed that test. Sadly, it has failed again in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Sadly true on all counts.

As that's critical and I began with his ending, I'll continue to cherry pick his review in reverse and thus to my mind, descending order of importance.

"The eminent British military historian Richard Holmes learned through his research on World War I veterans that he could not trust the recollections of these soldiers who fought in the trenches. In a mere handful of years, he discovered, their memory of that war “differed widely” from what actually happened. So too with Vietnam."

True assessment. It is also true that the historiography of that war suffers tremendously from agenda driven skews. Sorley's view is indeed unbalanced -- many contrary views also suffer from a lack of that.

"Could the United States have prevailed in Vietnam? Yes, but it would have had to commit to staying there for generations, not a mere handful of years...Thus, to prevail in Vietnam, the United States would have needed the collective will that it mustered to win World War II and would have had to be able to maintain it for generations. That kind of will—or staying power—was never a real possibility."

Nor was it true in World War II. The World, this nation its economy and people were rapidly wearing down by 1945. World War II, like the Cold War and like Desert Storm was an anomaly. Wrong lessons can be and often are drawn from all those. So too with Viet Nam. We learned mostly the wrong lessons from that war and discarded some important truths.

One of those truths is, as you write, that kind of staying power is never a real possibility. Thus any war or type thereof that proposes long term commitments is to be avoided, certainly never to be sought.

I disagree that the US could ever have prevailed in Viet Nam. We could have, as the common wisdom at the time noted, turned it into a parking lot -- lacking that, there would be no prevailing. That is true because as you ended and I quoted above and as you wroite early in your review:

"The tale of a better war in Vietnam is seductive. It offers a simple explanation of an army redeemed through tactical innovation brought about by a savior general. But the United States did not lose the Vietnam War because it didn’t have the right general in charge at the start, or because of weak politicians toward the end of the war. Washington lost because it failed at strategy. It failed, in short, to discern that the war was unwinnable at a cost in blood and treasure that the American people would accept. There was never a “better war” in Vietnam."

True. This is also true:

"The problem, however, is that this so-called better war exists mostly in the minds of misguided historians and agenda-driven pundits."

Even more true. Avoid becoming one in a contrarian vein... ;)

You made the valid point that Westmoreland did not lose the war stating correctly that no individual could do that. The US Army lost that war, partly in fact from trying to fight a land war in northwest Europe while actually being in southeast Asia -- just as they had shortly before lost on in northeast Asia from yet again trying to 'European-ize' the effort. Habit is terrible thing...

However, in all those wars, the bulk of failures by the Army were politically induced. While that is a fact, it is does not excuse the overall mediocre performance of the Army all too often. Abrams was not error free, nor was Westmoreland -- both of them had to work within the system and both were captives of the huge, bureaucratic and Euro-centric MACV AND Army Staffs. Those are, mostly, the folks who did not understand Viet Nam. Nor did the Army understand Korea and generally it has not understood Afghanistan or Iraq. That happens when preservation of the institution overtakes basic competence as the primary goal.

Yes, Gian, I am indeed predictable. Pavlov and all that. Playing "Who shot John..." is not really helpful. Arguments over Westmoreland versus Abrams are academic and academics can argue merrily onward. The Generals are not the issue, the performance of the political heirarchy and of the Army are the critical factors. The capability and methodology of this nation and its Army to employ force are not academic and it is long past time to absorb the true lessons of Viet Nam and the past half century or so. Scrutinizing those lessons is important, implementing the right changes thus learned is far more so.

The lesson from Korea, Viet Nam -- and these current wars -- is that the Army must change the almost totally dysfunctional Personnel system -- 'repairs' to it will not suffice -- and discard the short tour syndrome and the turbulence that induces. It must significantly improve training, expand capabilities and develop credibility it does not now have to advise the Politicians of alternatives in the application of force. If all those things do not happen, the institution that so many strive to protect will become irrelevant.

Gentile's 2-dimensions view of Vietnam is not how he's like his war look at. In fact, Westy fought as PRESCRIBED by LBJ. period. And as such he succeeded, not according to Sorley, but the COSVN Command, by making the Tet Offensive necessary. One of LBJ's advisers claims that the proudest thing he experienced was when in Dec. 1967 he convinced LBJ to deny Westy permission to attack NVA bases in Cambodia. Mush of what Abrams was able to do in changing the emphasis of the war was BECAUSE of Tet. Let us recall that US troops were sent in because Hanoi had moved from guerrilla hit and run to large unit actions from safe bases in Laos and Cambodia. I can understand Sorley's feelings and commiserated with Ge. Johnson years after the war was lost. But the fact is that it was the civilian leadership's indecisiveness in the face of Hanoi's fully funded and supplied venture that made Westy such a loser. Recall that one could take the train from Haiphong to Hanoi with no fear of all those USN aircraft looking for ox carts to destroy.....$5 cart chased by $5million plane-- typical US military!-- because unloaded supplies from Vladivostok were to be untouched. It was those supplies that killed our troops in I Corps.

Westy fulfilled the mission McNamara gave him: reach the "crossover point" where NVA men and supplies can't come south as fast as Westy was eating them up. He would have gone further but for the proud imbecile whose biography I quoted above. Hanoi writes that to this day in its official histories!!!

By contrast, Gentile's war was against fish in a barrel. So, rather than write about Vietnam judgmentally, how about his getting to know the Iraq War reeeeaaaaaaal well so he could write a credible history.

Lastly, to keep down their casualties, Americans have always massacred the people they are trying to save because they were able to. Interventionism, however, never seems to take the morality of that into consideration when waxing moralistically about intervening. As soon as Abrams could-- thanks to Westy-- "Vietnamize," he tried to and CAP/MAT teams did a hell of a job. I couldn't say that for Petraeus's "PR" surges.