Sorley, Lewis. Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011. 395 pp., $30
Editor's Note: This review originally appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, 96, no. 4, p 84. It is reprinted here with the permission of the Gazette.
Lewis Sorley’s eviscerating biography of General William Childs Westmoreland is long overdue, powerful for its restraint and careful annotation, a complete treatment of a man who caused tremendous damage to his Army and his country. Sorley guides us with steady hand down the fast-running river that was Westmoreland’s career, sweeping us along as we hear with mounting horror the roar of the falls ahead. When the ship of American state is sunk in Vietnam, Westmoreland is still sure he was right, rewarded by promotion upstairs, dedicated to his last unhappy breath in 2005 to justifying his deeply wrong strategy of bloody attrition in that war.
Sorley is a retired Army officer, a West Point graduate and veteran of both Vietnam and the Pentagon, and with four previous books on Vietnam and Army generals he can get right to the point. Within five pages we are into Westmoreland’s incandescent and uniquely American career: handsome, jut-jawed small-town Eagle Scout matriculates into one of history’s most successful West Point classes (six four-stars); rises swiftly to battalion command in combat at age 28 known to his men as “Superman”; Colonel at 30; regimental command at 31; four-star theater command at 52; Army Chief of Staff; no small threat for the presidency, which LBJ himself took seriously enough, Sorley asserts, to keep Westmoreland in Vietnam. Yet Westmoreland is “awed by his own magnificence,” stubborn, incurious or even “dumb,” prone to fall asleep in briefings and - far worse - to blame subordinates for his own lethal mistakes. His belief, hardened in World War II, was that throwing more men with larger weapons into a war would solve challenges from the tactical to the strategic. For Vietnam this was a very serious problem, the basis for all the others, in conducting a campaign described by one of his generals as “eighty percent ideas”.
Westmoreland, said his executive officer and future four-star general Volney Warner years later, quite simply “didn’t understand the war then, doesn’t understand it now.” To the highly complex Vietnam insurgency question, Westmoreland’s confident, one-word answer – “firepower” – led to America’s ten years gone and more than 57,000 lives lost. Rather than try to understand the war in his four years commanding MACV, Westmoreland spent himself impressing Washington patrons who could get him the top slot in the corporation rather than listening to his generals warning of military disasters, or to his civilian advisors documenting the South Vietnamese government’s corruption and incompetence which Westmoreland insisted America bankroll. It is more heartbreaking and infuriating that he ignored soldiers and Marines in the field, who beginning with the 1965 disaster in the Ia Drang Valley were outmatched in the running jungle war to which they brought Westmoreland’s beat-the-Nazis tactics, weapons and training.
The Naval War College’s Dr. Don Chisholm has pointed out that as a leader matures into high-level positions his courage must move from the realm of the physical to that of the moral. General William Westmoreland in his years in Saigon and as Army Chief of Staff demonstrated neither type. “He had a way of creating a truth in his own behalf,” said a junior officer of General Westmoreland’s. Lewis Sorley at last sets the record straight.
Link to hour and a half lecture by the book's author Lewis Sorley
I recommend Gian for Quote of the Week. He has neatly summed up his defense of Westmoreland and one of the major flaws in the US Army in one memorable sentence:<blockquote>"...He had a very favorable remembrance of Westmoreland, saw him very general-like while he remembered Abrams after he took over as having a very un-soldierly, general-like appearance."</blockquote>
General like appearance? Hoo,boy. That would be laughable if it were not so sad...
Abrams had flaws and made errors. Westmoreland had flaws and made errors. Generals are human. Who knew? As one who served under both, Abrams had that war figured out far better than Westmoreland ever did and was the better Commander (not leader, those guys don't get paid to lead, they get paid to <i>command</i>). Abrams just did a better job of that and screwed up a bit less. Pacification and our whole strategery there were flawed -- even stupid -- concepts which quite predictably failed. Neither General could have overcome that, both were Eurocentric in their military orientation due to their experience and neither was the 'right' man for the job. Due to the job offered, As Bob Jones notes,there probably was no 'right' man.
Bob rightly castigates Eisenhower for supporting the French but he omits the fact that Ridgeway convinced Eisenhower to <u>not</u> commit any US Troop units. Eisenhower listened. Ridgeway also advised the Kennedy Brothers to avoid that -- they didn't listen and essentially fired Lemnitzer as CJCS because he also advised against going in with additional forces. Fortunately for the brothers, Max Taylor jumped in with total support of the Bootlegger's Brahmins -- so if we're calling out Generals, let's ping Max as well.
Enough egg in Viet Nam for a lot of faces...
And Gian, as one who read on the ground at the time a lot of AARs and OpSitReps, while I agree with you that close after the action beats 20 plus years later, in Viet Nam (and in Korea for that matter), many of those would've garner an 'A' at the Acadamy for Creative Writing. Embellishments, enhancements and omissions were sometime quite blatant. Those old logs and reports also bear a bit of skepticism...
Interesting stuff coming out in this thread. A couple of weeks age the History Channel was running a program about LBJ and I caught some things I had never heard before. The History channel had gained access to the recording system LBJ while used in the WH. You can clearly here LBJ say he was worried about being impeached as the first President to loose a war. He was so worried he invited Eisenhower to the WH for a Strategy review cession during which Eisenhower recommended LBJ go full bore in to stopping North Vietnam because it was a clear challenge to US superiority. Point being Eisenhower's involvement directly and indirectly has been vastly under reported IMO.
Presuming the Vietnam War could have been won, that the effort would have been worth the cost to this country, and that there was some strategic benefit to our having secured (for a time) South Vietnam's independence; we most certainly could not have succeeded applying Westmoreland's military strategy--not because his forces could couldn't win tactical victories and temporarily secure a piece of property that would soon be abandoned, but because the civilian populations of countries such as the United States will not long endure having their drafted sons sacrificed for what would seem to be a never ending struggle. One in which the population did not see any benefit. This was not WWII where the nation's civilian population had a perceived interest in defeating the Germans and Japanese. We were fighting to prop up a corruptly led Government, etc.
Giap realized that fact and saw the strategically ridiculous position in which the American military had been placed by President Johnson. Giap's military strategy was simple. He knew the US forces could tactically defeat his forces in head to head battles every day of the year due to the overwhelming fire power we could bring to bear, so he predicated his strategy on fighting battles, causing casualties among our troops and air crews, loosing the battle, accepting his losses large or small, and sending replacements into the South to repeat the process over and over again. As he said, we would run out of patience for that war long before he ran out of men.
All of this begs the question, did Westmoreland actually believe he could kill enough NVA during battles in the South to actually drive the North out of the war? Giap and his generals had taken his measure, and with a few exceptions, committed only enough troops into a battle to cause us casualties at an acceptable cost to their forces--aiming at the US home front morale. Further, the borders into the South were porous and could not be closed. Didn't Westmoreland understand the North was continuing to send men and supplies South regardless of how many we killed. They abandoned territory as they tactically "lost" the battle and we abandoned it after tactically "winning" the battle.
The Generals and Admirals who sent their air crews on de facto (partially) suicide missions against the North, due to Johnson prohibiting the taking out of SAM sites and requiring attacking the same targets over and over again, carried out the same absurd type of meaningless repetitive attacks. I witnessed that first hand as a young Navy Officer in an operations staff position that allowed me to have first hand view of that war. I received copies of the Top Secret intelligence reports on what was moving down the Trail. The detail was spectacular--number of elephants, trucks, mules, what they were carrying, number of men, porters, etc. My first thought was you can only get this type of detail if someone is watching the Trail and reporting it back. My second thought was the NVA has made a total commitment to continuing this conflict at any cost until we became frustrated with our losses gaining tactical victories, and third I was impressed by the scope of their logistical operation.
I was certainly not the only officer to see this information. It should have been a signal to the brass such as Westmoreland and those of the USAF and USN that we could only prevail by either sending and maintaining several millions of men in the South permanently occupying every area and blocking the borders--obviously an unrealistic approach; or win by sending a very large force to carry out a Sherman style campaign against the North from the land, air, and sea. The good news is that the Chinese would not have been invited in by the North Vietnamese who feared they would not leave--no love lost between those peoples. Instead the intelligent Giap, Ho Chi Minh, and other leaders in the North early in the US invasion would have signaled the end to their campaign in the South, stopped their southward movement of men and supplies, withdrew most of their men, etc. We would have stopped our operations against the North and withdrew our forces, signed the appropriate papers and withdrawn our forces from the South as we did. After a year or two the NVA would have returned as they eventually did and would have overrun the South--as they did. This war weary nation would not have intervened to save the corrupt Thieu and his ilk.
This raises the question, is it incumbent on Generals and Admirals to silently send men into battle even when they know the end result will not be successful due to restrictions placed on their operations by our ruling politicians, or should they advise the President and Sec Def they cannot participate in a losing conflict that will destroy the effectiveness of the military and, therefore, put in their retirement papers? Think how much better off this country and our country have been had the Generals and Admirals had the courage to retire in mass as assigned to commands operating in South Vietnam or against the North. Or, would that be unpatriotic?
Precisely what strategic loss occurred to this country by the "feared" communists taking over the South? Countless American companies are moving their manufacturing operations into that country these days. Their beaches (Vung Tau, etc) are becoming popular resort locations--again. Former ARVN officers who fled the country (including several with who I am close friends) return periodically (actually quite often) to that country, do business there, have had their property returned, and spend a lot of time there with their family. I also understand we have a small military presence there assisting that country due to growing disputes with the Chinese.
As noted by Robert C. Jones below, our national level political leadership's failure was strategic and that doomed our effort. However, from what I observed, I don't believe that out military's strategic approach (or tactical approach if one wishes) could have succeeded--whether it was Westmoreland's Seek(?) and Destroy, the USMC CAP effort, the Special Force's efforts, etc given the NVA being allowed essentially free entry into the South. A situation our Generals and Admirals quite apparently ignored when carrying out that war which I believe condemns them as failures. Whether one agrees with Lieutenant General Victor Krulak's views or not, at the cost of his career, at least he had the courage to tell Lyndon Johnson face to face his strategy in Vietnam would not work. Westmoreland was either patriotically blind; in over his head, i.e. not bright; and / or lacked the courage of Lt. Gen. Krulak.
The replies of CBCalif and Mike in Hilo, above, I think are quite accurate and offer some important thoughts for the future -- both point to things to be avoided...
This statement by CBCalif is IMO distressingly accurate:<blockquote>"Westmoreland was either patriotically blind; in over his head, i.e. not bright; and / or lacked the courage of Lt. Gen. Krulak."</blockquote>That statement, accurate in totality, sums up my thoughts and those of many of my contemporaries. It is at least arguably true and thus is a scathing indictment not of a General who did the best he was able but of our Army and its terribly flawed personnel system and with deadly -- literally -- overemphasis on 'fairness' and 'objectivity,' one size fits all and <i>everyone</i> gets a chance and his or her turn.
That "deadly" is sadly well chosen. In combat, people die. That is inevitable. However to not allow but virtually to ensure that more die than is necessary in order to perpetuate myths and a failed, corrupt system is unconscionable. Why Army leaders tolerate it, I know not...
The SWJ Blog article "<i>Don't Promote Mediocrity"</i> by BG Mark Arnold offers suggestions to obviate this crippling and long standing deficiency. Those suggestion are not, I believe adequately radical but they are eminently sensible and are all relatively easily implemented with the shattering of a rice bowl or two.
I haven't read the book. Nevertheless, some elementary thoughts on Westmoreland vs. Abrams: When I arrived in Vietnam in 1971, US combat units (some were still there) were operating in the jungle covered border lands and enemy base areas, serving as a shield behind which, in the populated areas, ARVN and RF/PF maintained territorial security . In A better War, Sorely (p.139) quotes Abrams as defending this border area/disruption of enemy base areas approach on the grounds that the alternative, territorial security, was unfeasible as a US mission because far greater troop strength would have been required. Now, it is my understanding that Westmoreland similarly focused on the borders and base areas, and a stated rationale even in those earlier years was to provide a shield behind which pacification could be implemented in the populated areas by the GVN. Unfortunately, pre-Tet, you did not have universal male conscription into RVNAF, and the resources dedicated to ensure RF/PF combat readiness were woefully inadequate. So there was less pacification/territorial security going on behind that US shield.
Bob Jones: I concur re: Ike. When we elbowed out the French and installed Diem the die was cast. But I suspect your prescription and mine differ. My observations led me to conclude that ethnic South Vietnamese possessed a significantly greater animus toward their ethnic Northern compatriots than toward the French; and that both virulent ethnic Southern nationalist/anti-colonialist sentiment (see, for example, Race, War Comes to Long An p.179) and Southern yearning for reunification were Northern irredentist myths swallowed by the US. In this sense, a rational alternative to abetting a Viet Minh takeover of the South in 1956, might have been US support of anti-communist, native Southern leadership, eschewing the rejection of the extant Southern elite because it was so manifestly Francophile; and based on Southern regionalism, which was a real force. The search for an elusive, third force, anti-communist yet anti-French, led to Diem and imposition of an unacceptable, alien, ethnic Northern (albeit anti-communist) regime over the people of the Delta and adjacent ethnic Southern areas.
Gian...you will notice that I said that Abrams was perhaps "better in touch with what Washington wanted" than Westmoreland. By that I refer to the focus (at least for public consumption) on pacification and Vietnamization. I didn't say that he was totally in touch. I get that you don't care for Abrams. You should also understand by now that I am not an automatic supporter of Abrams. Both had their issues. Do I feel that Westmoreland's issues were larger? Yes. That does not automatically make me a Sorley "revisionist."
In fact Abrams was out of touch with what Washington wanted--namely his commander in chief assisted by his NSC advisor HK. That is why Nixon seriously considered relieving Abrams (as the documents fully attest to) for not using military force in Vietnam that was in line with Nixon's overall policy of Vietnamization. This break down in civil military relations came to the fore during the Easter Offensive in 1972 when Nixon wanted Abrams using the B52s to target Hanoi and the political leadership in order to force them to agree to American conditions for withdrawal. Abrams instead saw the use of the B52s in tactical terms by using them to hammer the NVA and its supply lines, exposed during the offensive. Now one can argue the pros or cons to Nixon's policy, but at least from Nixon's view Abrams was out of touch with what he wanted.
Because Sorley makes the argument that Westmoreland didnt care about pacification, and his main sources for proving this assertion are rembrances of people decades after the fact. The contemporaneous historical record does not in any way support that assertion. In fact what it shows is a Westmoreland who did in fact care quite deeply about pacification and a general who fully understood the war he was fighting. I am not "denying" the use of post event interviews even decades after the fact, but the good historian should at least confront the fact with his readers that the interviews being used to support such assertions and the criticism toward Westmoreland in them are not contained within the contemporaneous historical record.
Gian, as a distinguished historian, please clear me up on something. Why are we locked in to only contemporaneous data when analyzing history? Why do you deny us the benefit of hindsight to learn? Is that what your scholarship has taught you?
If commentators in the 1960s and 70s failed to criticize Westmoreland why are we now denied the freedom to do so?
I would tend to trust the personal recollections over statements on record. First of all, Vietnam was an "administratively challenged" conflict as many who were there will tell you. Second, the ones keeping the records were not unaware that someone would read them and, just as Genl Westmoreland sought to characterize Ia Drang in a positive light, it seems more than likely to me that the record keepers were in a position and of a mind to spin. Finally, there were two sorts of soldiers in Vietnam. Some of us were there to fight the fight our country had entered and then go home (if possible). Others were there as part of a career progression exercise and knew very well what bad news does for the messenger. That dichotomy was not universal but it sure as heck was prevalent. I'd trust recollections of the guys who went there and did that over the cya reportage that I saw and heard.
I appreciate a certain style can cause unwarranted resentment in subordinates. But is it possible that the troopers sullen disdain was considerably more informed than you suggest. Was it because their general deliberately concealed a disaster that had just occurred a few km from the "distinguished victory" he was proclaiming into the camera.
Surely an approach in the vein of 'The terrible losses at LZ-Albany are my fault not yours, you men are all heroes for what you have done over these last two days' would have been the mark of a good general - you might hate him but you could still respect him.
As one vet described it the fact that such a calamity was swept under the carpet, ( disturbingly where it still remains ) meant the whole effort in Vietnam began in 1965 to rot like a dead fish – from the head first.
fair question. To be sure there were differences in leadership styles between Westmoreland and Abrams. From my reading of the documents (Westmoreland's papers at CMH) he tended to be a cold fish in his relationships with subordinates. Abrams on the other hand had the leadership style of a football coach; chewing ass when necessary then slapping someone on the tail saying get back into the game. Yet we should not assume that leadership style is the only the determinant of effective generalship. I don’t doubt the impression you had from that film clip. And to be sure Westmoreland was, in his own way, very media savvy especially in the first two years of the war to show that the war was proceeding according to plan. It is very possible Abrams got similar response when he was out and about during his years in command. Two years ago we brought a Vietnam vet to speak to the History Dept faculty at West Point (he was a helicopter pilot in 1st Cav as i recall). He had a very favorable remembrance of Westmoreland, saw him very general-like while he remembered Abrams after he took over as having a very un-soldierly, general-like appearance. But again my point here is not to take styles of leadership to the point of determining the effectiveness of generalship. After all probably one of the original abusive leaders, as a general, was Napoleon who routinely would kick staff officers in the gut when they brought him news he didn’t like to hear. But few would argue otherwise that in military generalship terms, Napoleon was truly one of history's great.
Lastly to your point of soldiers listening to their "general's fine words" I am reminded of Napoleon again after a desperate set of engagements at Jena where he trooped the line of a number of his battalions, some of them having been quite mauled by the enemy, with their buddies lying dead on the field, all the while Boney talking about the glories of France and soldiering. I imagine if there had been a camera filming him there we might have seen very similar stares by soldiers that Westmoreland received in the killing fields of Ia Drang in late 65.
As you say memory as well as personal agenda can distort even the most honest testimony. In the case of Westmoreland there is a moment captured by CBS which IMO defines the man and much of the senior leadership during the Vietnam War.
In a forlorn hope of ending the war Giap used Ia Drang to reveal his strategy to the US leadership. Something McNamara latter acknowledged to Nixon - namely the NVA leadership were willing and able to sacrifice an entire regiment every week in order to kill a company of Americans. Not occasionally but every week, and if my memory serves me correctly, for 25 years. In case there was any doubt of this Ataturk-like "I order you to die" instruction some of the PAVN troops were ordered to charge the American positions with their rifles slung across their backs.
Westy flies in and declares the action at LZ X-Ray a "distinguished victory". He completely ignores the massacre at LZ-Albany. He later (after a polite interval) describes the casualties at Ia Drang as light to moderate. He had a CBS crew capture the moment. He spent the rest of his time ( and the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese) in Vietnam trying to convince the world that light infantry inserted by Air Cav represented his Jominic moment in military history.
The newsreel is at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25x53ibwp7A if you don’t have your own copy.
I was struck by the footage around the 18 min mark. He is speaking to men who by their faces you can see the symptoms of the trauma that will condemn many of them to PTSD for the rest of their days. Despite the blood of their friends still under their nails and the screams for mercy of their massacred buddies ringing in their ears I notice a seething resentment etched on their faces whilst they listen to the general’s fine words.
Do you believe it captures the essence of the man or is it the survivors didn’t understand the big picture or is it just me?
Ah Duck, my favorite blog stalker strikes again.
Look my friend, any historical researcher knows that there are real problems with using post-account interviews as sources. Now to be sure the closer the interview is to the event the more accurate and credible the source is. For instance the reports compiled in the OR on the civil war that were usually done within weeks or months after a given battle are very worthwhile. Another example is the interviews done by army historians after the Normandy beach landings which were done only weeks after the assualt. In these interviews the memory is still tight because it is so close to the event. But memory of events decades after become clouded and contorted in many ways. It is not that they should not be used, they should. But an interview done 20 or thirty years after the event, espicially on such a controversial topic as the Vietnam war, should be mediated by the analyst along with other sources. As I said in my first post, which CJ correctly expanded on, Sorley's main sources for his slaying of Westmoreland are alomost always rembrances decades after the war. If you go into the archives Mr Duck, you will not see anything close to the damning criticism that Sorley applies to Westmoreland. His interpretation is just not supported by the primay historical record.
Because Sorley ignores or minimalizes policy and political factors, because he ignores Abrams continuing use of similar policies (and in fact an expansion of many of these policies) in an attempt to build Westmoreland as a foil to the white knight (played by Abrams), because he strips the historical context surrounding not just Westmoreland but the entire conflict in all its complexity - all done in an attempt to provide a one word answer to a complicated question. The flip side of this COIN (no pun intended) is Paula Broadwell's recent 'story.' Pick your poison, both are overly simplified, dramatized, sensationalist narratives only loosely based on historical truth.
Typical doublespeak from Gian. Because Sorley's sources are apparently all unreliable interviews done decades after the war, we are supposed to conclude that, hold the presses, Westmoreland did a superb job in prosecuting the Vietnam War? Further, we are supposed to conclude from a single comment by Sorely(decades ago) that Westmoreland was a COIN master? Because he doesn't agree with you Gian, Sorley is not permitted to use hindsight?
The only thing i would add in commenting on this review, is that reviewer evidently missed the problem with Sorley's sources for his evisceration of Westmoreland: most of the sources that support his evisceration of Wesmoreland come from interviews conducted 20, 30, and in some cases even 40 years after the war. As Greg Daddis pointed out in his superb review of Sorley's new book in a recent issue of Parameters Sorley himself wrote a Military Review article in 1967 based on his time there that year as a Major where he argued that the US was fully supporting efforts at pacification. Westmoreland obviously was in command when he wrote it. But now in his new biography of Westmoreland he argues that the general didnt care about pacification nor did he understand the war he was fighting. See the rub?
Still the better war svengali will not die; folks (especially some marines who continue to think that their caps was the war winning solution to Vietnam) continue to believe that the Vietnam War could have been one if we had just gotten the tactics right and put the right guy in charge.
Ah, Bob. You must have missed the memo that says you can't blame anything on Eisenhower...and yes, I'm being tongue-in-cheek with that. Eisenhower left us with a number of messy legacies that he's managed to avoid taking blame for.
I've stated before that I tend to think Abrams was better at recognizing what Washington wanted, and did take some steps to give it to them. Westmoreland had issues. There's no getting around that. But I think you can say that without automatically assuming that Abrams didn't have issues.
As a strategist who spends a great deal of time thinking about these things, I think this spears the wrong general and is 10 years off mark in time as well.
I think the general who owns this one is Ike, and he was President at the time. Once he set the course in '56 we were on the path to failure. Yes, there were various off-ramps missed by a long list of leaders over the next 20 years, but to focus blame on the guy who was the tactical leader on the ground at the time the strategic effects snowballed is not a fair assessment of history.
Comedian Ron White has a routine based on the catch-phrase "You can't fix stupid." I don't think the US was stupid in how it framed the strategic context for either Vietnam or Afghanistan (though one might wonder why we applied the same logic the second time...); but I do believe that no amount of good, smart, hard tactical action can do much more than suppress the symptoms of the resultant problems when on frames the strategy wrong up front. I believe Sun Tzu made a similar, oft quoted, observation.