Small Wars Journal

Westmoreland

Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

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. 

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.