Reading Lewis Sorley’s scalding biography of Army Gen. William Westmoreland, “Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam,” is like watching a slow-motion replay of an oncoming train wreck.
The result of this collision is known: failure of the U.S. military mission, 58,000-plus dead Americans, the U.S. divided and at political war with itself, a once-proud military left tarnished, exhausted and in disrepute.
Sorley, a West Point graduate and retired Army lieutenant colonel, is unsparing in his analysis of Westmoreland, the top U.S. general in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 and then Army chief of staff in the latter years of the war.
In Sorley’s view, the general whose rock-like jaw and prominent eyebrows made him look like a Hollywood casting agent’s dream of a military leader was arrogant, duplicitous, vain and not altogether smart. When he arrived in Saigon, there were 16,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam; when he left there were 535,000. In between, Westmoreland delivered a litany of speeches and statements asserting that the war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong was being won.
For readers of modern military history, Sorley’s take on Vietnam precedes his work: Westmoreland’s dogged determination to stick with a “search and destroy” policy was disastrous; his successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, was more successful in building the South Vietnamese forces, but the U.S. lost the war because Washington failed to follow through on promises to support the government in Saigon once U.S. troops left.
With copious use of interviews and after-action documents, Sorley reports on Westmoreland’s disdain for the Vietnamese forces, his feuds with the Marine Corps and Air Force, and his unwavering belief that the war could be won with overwhelming U.S. firepower. He took credit for victories and sidestepped responsibility for defeats.
Westmoreland assigned the ground combat missions to U.S. forces while the South Vietnamese were deprived of sufficient support and “relegated to support pacification,” which he felt to be a mission of little importance.
“In reality, of course,” Sorley writes, “theirs was the more challenging role, as rooting out the enemy’s covert infrastructure and strengthening the South Vietnamese governmental apparatus were far more difficult than straightforward combat operations.”
Many Marine Corps generals believed in working with the South Vietnamese forces and village paramilitary units, which compounded the problems Westmoreland had “with fellow Army officers over the viability of his big-war approach.”
If Sorley’s detailed, relentless reporting on Westmoreland’s years in Vietnam and the Pentagon are devastating, his chapters on Westmoreland after retiring from the Army are even more so. Like some Ancient Mariner, the general roamed the land preaching his view of what went wrong in Vietnam, trying to reclaim the reputation that had once made him Time magazine’s man of the year.
Among the places where Westmoreland took his rhetorical road show: “the Hampton County Watermelon Festival, the Junior National Team Handball Champions Recognition Ceremony, the South Carolina Subsection of the Society of American Foresters, the Lees-McRae Junior College Gymnasium Dedication, the Annual Installation of Officers of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce in Dallas, and a meeting of the National Soccer Coaches Association in New York.”
For Westmoreland in winter there was the failed try for the GOP nomination for governor of South Carolina and the failed lawsuit against CBS prompted by a documentary asserting that he had deliberately underestimated the strength of the enemy in order to maintain support in Washington for the war.
When Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces in the Gulf War of 1991, in his book “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” wrote that the Army had lost its integrity because of inflated counts of enemy bodies in Vietnam, Westmoreland was furious and tried to pressure Schwarzkopf into changing the text. “Nothing came of those efforts and the criticism stood.”
Westmoreland died on July 18, 2005, at 91, after a life that had great success — battlefield leader in World War II and Korea, at 42 the youngest two-star general in the Army, innovative superintendent of West Point — but “turned out to be indefinitely sad.”
If America wants to fully understand the war in Vietnam, it has to understand Westmoreland, Sorley asserts. He made the war into an American war.
Even if they have not yet read this book, you can bet that the Army and Marine generals running the war in Afghanistan have studied the lessons of Westmoreland’s failed command.