October 15th, 2011

Sorley: Vietnam and Westmoreland, the first act

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.

12 Responses to “Sorley: Vietnam and Westmoreland, the first act”

  1. blert Says:

    He was in love with himself — and his brainchild the airmobile assault.

    While fancying himself a new-wave Guderian — he never led his airmobile formations from the battlefield.

    Strangely, he didn’t even follow Ike’s tactic of flying over the battlefield. Ike found that he HAD to do so — battle reports and maps didn’t cut it.

    LBJ and McNamera famously didn’t tolerate bad news…

    Westy was of a like mind.

    All three assumed that the war of their youth, WWII, was the correct template.

    The Pentagon still hadn’t come to terms with what had happened in Korea.

    Indeed, I haven’t discovered ANY Western account of that campaign that acknowledges that it represented the culmination of the Chinese Civil Wars.

    Not ‘getting’ Korea meant that the Pentagon didn’t ‘get’ Vietnam.

    BTW, there were anti-war protests in the North. Ho liquidated the protesters on the spot. The campaign didn’t travel well with the son of Stalin running the show.


    Biggest errors: intelligence collection and cultural understanding. Read: Slow Burn.

    The staggering blunder of not realizing that the bulk of ammo was coming in by way of the Pacific Ocean — and regular shipping into Cambodia. The Ho Chi Min trail was trivial by comparison. Indeed, it was sustained as a magician’s misdirection.

    Westy never had a clue.

    CIA: massive failure to perform. Again, read Slow Burn.

    Where ever whenever we had good intel the enemy was put out of business in short order.

    One last note: the number one NVA spy was Thieu’s personal secretary! This became known only upon his death — in Orange County, California — at which point Hanoi issued national highest honors for him.

    The funeral had to be ‘adjusted’ — of course.

    This meant that our counter-intel was a complete bust.

    With that level of penetration the ARVN was doomed.

    The last straw for SVN was the loss of their POL to sappers firing but a handful of 122mm rockets!

    Against US Army insistence, ARVN over packed POL in two massive supply centers — with a mind to beat the rise in OPEC prices. Their panic buying was a major reason for the price explosion in crude oil — on our dime, of course.

    The result was predictable — and was predicted — once a fire started there were no fire breaks — and the entire supply went up like White Heat.

    This all came out in testimony before Congress — from US Army officers involved. It so disgusted the House that funding support evaporated — even from many conservatives. Sentiment shifted to: the stooges are running the asylum; no amount of money can save Thieu.

  2. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    Westy was the Kennedy’s kind of Genral,Harkins was not. Even though Westy took over in’64, he’d already been annointed. H.R.McMasters wrote a great book about 12 or 13 years back called Dereliction of Duty ,nailing the JCS and the Kennedy/Johnson administrations to the wall. McMasters was denied a star over this a few years later. IIRC,he finally got it due to efforts from General Petraus

  3. George Says:

    I once read that the last thing Westy did each morning before leaving his quarters in Saigon was put on his pants, so he wouldn’t spoil their crease (apparently his orderly ironed them every night). In this and other respects, Westy never really left the Point.

    “Not ‘getting’ Korea meant that the Pentagon didn’t ‘get’ Vietnam”

    To “get” much of what happened in Korea, read Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War.”

  4. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    The Vietnam War was the beginning of the anti-American meme that runs through our MSM. They have a narrative, which, as in this case, is found to be incorrect. Because they control the discussion, their narrative is never quite replaced by the truth. Hopefully, Sorley’s work and that of others will eventually become better known. Maybe the truth will eventually become the meme.

    They are trying to do the same thing with CAGW. That’s why they put so much effort into trying to shout down the so-called deniers.

    I was in a Navy squadron that was tasked with mining Haiphong harbor in early 1965. The JCS wanted to cut North Vietnam off. Stop the shipping, cut the roads and railroads into China, giving them no resources to fight with. The plan was to get them to agree to leave the South alone, much as we had done in Korea. Johnson and McNamra nixed that idea. They believed they could gradually up the pressure on the North until Uncle Ho would agree to a divided country ala Korea. We know how that worked out.

    I visited Vietnam (Nha Trang, Saigon, and Da Nang) two years ago. It was a return that gave me mixed feelings. The South is doing well and everyone I talked with hates the government in Hanoi. No surprise there – they also hated communism in the 60s. I had a long conversation with a man in his 50s who remembered the war. There are few men my age still alive. This fellow remembered the years after the NVA took over as extremely desperate. His father was ARVN and sent to a re-education camp. While he was away, the family eked out a living by fishing, gathering edible plants, and a small bag of rice provided by the government. His father was a broken man when he came home and died not much later. Life continued very hard until 1986 when the government began economic and political reforms and a path towards international reintegration. Things like cooking oil, more rice, fuel for cooking, bicycles, better fising tackle,and cheap tools gradually appeared. Things gradually improved and by the mid 90s he saw real hope for the future with his life improving yearly. Since 2000 they have had one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world. That said, they are still behind most Asian countries.

    I could not help but think that the country would be near where South Korea is economically if only we had not betrayed them. I was pleased to see life had improved. They are industrious, pleasant people and easy to like. However, the trip did not fully assuage my feelings about our failure. I guess I’ll carry them to the grave.

  5. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I don’t have much to say about Westmoreland’s performance. Generally, whatever the boss in question didn’t do is presumed to work like a finely-tuned turbine generator. It’s like a silver bullet. Can’t fail.
    Example: Lots of folks who look at the issue say the US shouldn’t have fought in the Huertgen Forest. Terrible fights and casuaties. As my father said–his division did get into the HF somewhat–you have to kill Germans someplace. And the Germans suffered horribly there, too. Hemingway’s description of the place as “Passchendale with tree bursts”, might have been offputting, but it overlooked the point that the US killed a lot of Germans there. It’s not as if the US marched its troops into some swamp someplace having nothing to do with the enemy.
    Having large units floundering around looking for the bad guys meant that the bad guys had to keep moving. Guerillas keep moving. It’s their thing. But if they can’t settle down, they can’t take control.
    If Westy had a fault, and I don’t admit he did or didn’t, it was that he didn’t understand that the nation wasn’t behind the war as it was when he was in WW II. In WW II, the generals weren’t required to be looking over their shoulders to see if the NYT and the National Council of Churches approved of their strategy and tactics.

  6. Pagian Says:

    Westmoreland was established a balanced reputation as a stern taskmaster who cared about his men and took a great interest in their welfare.

  7. Don Carlos Says:

    This is just a big distraction from the fact that the Congressional Dems refused to fund the increasingly successful South. Cut them off, despite prior committment to support. Just like that, the boat people and the killing fields were born. More than anything, that caused the defeat. And of course it is not PC to even bring that up. The wretched Dems are still with us.

  8. gs Says:

    This characterization of Westmoreland is different in degree but not in kind from my impression of the man, which I probably formed from The Best and the Brightest.

    My impression is that Westmoreland was clueless; Abrams won the war; and the politicians threw away the victory.

  9. Peter Says:

    I was three minutes behind the first wave on May the seventh, 1965. It wasn’t long before we’d formed in fire teams and squads in the Villes, training and adding some muscle to the Ruff Puffs, a kind of home guards. We’d put a stop to the VC tax collectors. The rice, pigs and dried fish stopped and the local VC were getting mighty hungry.

    Then Westmoreland started throwing his weight around. We formed back into companies and battaillions and went out in the bush. Westmoreland’s method of finding the enemy was to send us out, wandering through the bush until we “found” a unit of VC or NVA by walking into an ambush. They’d cut loose, we’d take a few WIA and KIA , their best fighters would split leaving their sick and infirm behind to act as a rear guard.

    That was my war, right up to Tet of ’68. My second tour was cut short due to a little bad luck during the Hill Fights in ’67. By Tet I was back over there in a cush job in a Regimental Arms Locker. They swept through, dragged me out of the rafters where I was trying to be inconspicuous and we went to Hue. There rifle squads that were half truck drivers, clerks, jerks and cooks and bakers climbed the walls and killed the gooks. We also found thousands of students from the university bound and shot through the head.

    The best and brightest were not in Washington, DC. And the baby boomers were not at Woodstock. We were over there scratching leech bites. The flower of the baby boom were not in the antiwar marches. They were bleeding out in the mud, waiting for Dustoff.

    If Westmoreland had only been smart enough to listen to Silent Lew, we would have won that fight. It is my ambition to piss on his grave.

  10. Don Carlos Says:

    Peter says:

    “We also found thousands of students from the university bound and shot through the head.”

    A foretaste of Pol Pot? Holy, holy cow, how completely dreadful. But if Jane Fonda and Kerry had only known….

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    One of the reasons why Peter Pace and Petraeus were looked favorably upon by certain elements is because once they reached a high enough rank, they could start kicking out the desk kissers, the booty lickers, the incompetents, and promoting the real warriors to replace them. Superiors with their rank decides the promotion list, nobody else. And for much of history, promotions have been decided by people who were able to play the political game better than the warriors. America has been in more wars and engagements than most, but not nearly enough decisive ones to determine who is or isn’t a bad military commander.

    Part of losing war is political problems. The other part is the military problem inherent in incompetents residing at the chain of command: the very top. Ft. Hood is one example of how diversity from the chain of command blew up in people’s faces, but the commanders and general responsible for the “ignore gays and Muslim problem people” are perfectly fine. Somehow.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    But if Jane Fonda and Kerry had only known….

    They would have joined Dohr and Ayers for a drink at their mansion. A toast to dead capitalists.

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