Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
General William C. Westmoreland and British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig are in a category by themselves in the annals of military history. Both are roundly vilified by their own countries for their roles as the senior commanders in traumatic, unpopular and largely misunderstood wars. Almost 100 years after the start of World War I, Haig is still widely considered the bungler and butcher whose tactical and strategic ineptitude were the primary causes of the bloodbath on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. And Westmoreland, of course, is “the general who lost Vietnam.” But the cases against both commanders are not quite as black and white as many people would like to believe.
Lewis Sorley’s book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, is the latest salvo against him. This is an important book, extensively researched and argued with precision. But it is also a disturbing book. It is not a balanced biography of Westmoreland so much as it is an indictment, and a damning one at that. There is, unfortunately, plenty to indict Westmoreland for during his command tenure in the war. Did he make mistakes, major command mistakes? It retrospect that seems abundantly clear. Did he misunderstand the nature of the war? Most certainly. Was he really promoted to a level of command significantly above the level of his competence? Probably. But did Westmoreland lose the Vietnam War? Did he lose it single-handed? I think the historical record makes it pretty clear he had a lot of help.
There is one key fact about Westmoreland in Vietnam that fails to come out clearly in this book, although it is mentioned tangentially in a quote by Westmoreland himself on page 226. Westmoreland was not a supreme commander like Dwight D. Eisenhower in World War II or Douglas MacArthur in Korea. He was a subordinate unified commander under U.S. Pacific Command. Westmoreland had no control over the air war against North Vietnam or over the U.S. Navy’s blue water operations off North Vietnam. He was not responsible for forming the overall American strategy for the war. And if he actually wound up doing so, he did it by default. He did it because those above him in the chain of command and the political leadership failed to do their jobs. On page 265 Sorley comes closest to the real heart of the matter when he quotes Frank Getlein of the Washington Star: “No American in a position of authority in either Saigon or Washington had any remote notion of what the war was all about, least of all poor Westmoreland.”
Sorley skillfully uses Westmoreland’s own words to show time and again his duplicity at worst and his lack of touch with reality at best. But the argument is unbalanced. Many of the charges leveled against him have also been laid at the feet of many, if not most, of history’s most successful generals. Westmoreland was not an experienced senior field commander, but rather a political general. How many times has that been said of Eisenhower or Colin Powell? Westmoreland was a publicity hound who loved sharp, crisp uniforms and never met a photo-op he didn’t like. Did anyone ever say that about George Patton or MacArthur? Westmoreland focused on attritional warfare at the expense of his troops in the field. Wasn’t that how Ulysses S. Grant fought the Civil War?
One of the most damning features of Sorley’s book is many negative assessments of Westmoreland by his fellow general officers. An average reader, especially one with limited military experience, might conclude that the condemnation of other general officers represents the final conclusive argument. But anyone who has ever studied military history in depth or who has spent much time in the military at the higher ranks knows only too well that general officers in their ultra-competitive world constantly criticize each other, and always have. Few general officers in the Wehrmacht, for example, had much good to say about Erwin Rommel. And Patton was always carping about Eisenhower, even though he was a close friend.
Sorley offers one particularly disturbing vignette on page 59. While Westmoreland was superintendent of West Point, his aide-de-camp routinely scheduled tennis partners for him from the younger officers on the academy’s staff. One captain who was an exceptionally good player received a call from Westmoreland’s aide one day suggesting that the captain’s victories should not be so one-sided, concluding with the comment, “The General and I will be a lot happier.” The key question is what really happened here? Did Westmoreland really tell his aide to lean on the young captain to shave points off his game? If that is what actually happened, it is a serious black mark against Westmoreland’s character. As the vignette is presented, anyone with limited or no experience with general officers could not reach any other conclusion. But in the real world of general officers, this is a classic symptom of an aide-de-camp who is out of control. Attempting to “wear the general’s stars” behind his back is one of the great occupational hazards of being an aide. I have personally encountered this sort of thing so many times that I would assume it to be the case here, unless it can be proved otherwise.
Despite its flaws and its lack of balance Westmoreland is well worth reading—but read it critically. Nor is it the final word on the general. Someone once described history as an argument without end. The arguments over Field Marshal Haig have been going on for almost 100 years now, and there is no end in sight. The arguments about General Westmoreland are just getting started.
David T. Zabecki