A reader has called my attention to the fact that Lewis Sorley has written a new book, a biography of General William Westmoreland, the general who directed what might be called the first act of the portion of the Vietnam War that involved heavy American involvement rather than mere “advisors.” Max Boot reviews the book here.
I had written about Sorley’s earlier work, A Better War, here and here. That book, which evaluates what I have referred to as the second act of the war—the Creighton Abrams/Nixon part rather than the Westmoreland/LBJ part—finds that the former was far more successful than previously thought. Now Sorley directs his formidable research powers to the first act, and not only finds Westmoreland wanting, but discovers that the widely-accepted “narrative” about civilian direction of the war being responsible for many of the failures is just plain wrong. It was Westmoreland who made many of the terrible decisions, all by himself, without much guidance from the “best and the brightest” in DC, although often with their approval and acquiescence:
The subtitle says it all: “The General Who Lost Vietnam.” This judgment flies in the face of the common view—enunciated by no less than George W. Bush and a dominant strain in the 2005 obituaries for Westmoreland—that it was the politicians (with a big assist from the news media) who lost the war. Mr. Sorley makes mincemeat of this myth. While he concedes that Lyndon Johnson was deeply involved in “actions taken outside South Vietnam” (such as the bombing of the North), he argues: “Within South Vietnam, the U.S. commander had very wide latitude in deciding how to fight the war. That was true for Westmoreland, and equally true for his eventual successor.”
It was Westmoreland—not Lyndon Johnson or even Robert McNamara—who decided to fight a “war of attrition,” sending large and cumbersome American formations to thrash through the jungle and rice paddies in search of elusive enemy units. It was Westmoreland who kept demanding more American troops and who encouraged them to fire as many artillery rounds as possible—even if they lacked specific targets. It was Westmoreland who made “body counts” the key metric of the entire war effort in the futile hope that the United States could inflict enough casualties on the Communists to make them cry “Uncle!” He did not seem to realize or care that in the process he was inflicting lesser but still considerable casualties on American forces—and that a democracy like the United States was much more casualty-averse than a one-party dictatorship like North Vietnam.
Why did Westmoreland bungle so badly? It was not, as the most extreme antiwar protesters would have it, because he was a war criminal or psychopath. Mr. Sorley shows that Westmoreland was well-intentioned and conscientious, but also dense, arrogant, vain, humorless and not too honest. Is that too harsh a judgment? You won’t think so if you read all the damning assessments compiled by Mr. Sorley from the late general’s associates. Air Force Gen. Robert Beckel thought that “he seemed rather stupid. He didn’t seem to grasp things or follow the proceedings very well.” Or Army Gen. Charles Simmons: “General Westmoreland was intellectually very shallow and made no effort to study, read, or learn. He would just not read anything. His performance was appalling.”
Those comments were made by officers who worked closely with Westmoreland during his years as Army chief of staff—1968 to 1972—a time when “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.” But the warnings signs had been apparent long before. 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.”
Westmoreland’s appointment was further validation of the Peter Principle—that eventually every employee is promoted beyond his level of competence.
Boot’s article is worth reading not just for his observations about Sorley’s book, but about the entire field of Vietnam history, revisionist and otherwise. We will probably be arguing about this stuff for many decades to come. But I have found Sorley’s point of view and knowledge of the subject to be especially impressive.