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General William E. DuPuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War

by Henry G. Gole. University Press of Kentucky, 2008, $35

Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times

by Lewis Sorley. Indiana University Press, 2008, paperback edition, $19.95

Generally, there are two schools of thoughts about the generals in Vietnam. One holds that they were pure “attritionists,” seeking to defeat an insurgency with overwhelming firepower. The other school states that at some magical point the generals finally “got it” and began to adapt tactics and methods to match the situation on the ground—but by then it was too late. Two biographies highlight the generals who might each be considered the epitome of his camp. William DuPuy, an infantryman, was ironically the one more focused upon firepower. Creighton Abrams, the famous tanker, is the general most associated with the latter camp.

General DuPuy personified much of what might be considered the absolute best, and the absolute worst, of the American officer corps in general and the general officer corps in particular. In a detailed new biography of DuPuy, historian (and retired Special Forces officer) Henry Gole provides a balanced and comprehensive assessment of the oft-controversial general. It is a book filled with “Ah, so that is why X happened at Y date” moments, and it is a worthy addition to any bookshelf. That being said, this biography will not likely win any new fans for the iconic general, as it honestly portrays both his virtues and his faults from several angles.

As is the case with many complex personalities, the diminutive DuPuy was many things to many people. A dedicated father to his children, he was also a workaholic. A life-long Democrat who, according to his son, believed religious sentiment was probably a byproduct of biochemistry in the brain that created a need for religion, he was also quasi-religious in his own way with his single-minded dedication to the Army and the soldiers who served under him. DuPuy was all of these things and more, and the great value of Gole’s biography of the man is that the influences which led to the varying perceptions of him, and the intellectual positions he held himself, fall into place over the course of the book.

William DuPuy joined the army just prior to the beginning of the Second World War, and understanding his later behaviors absolutely justifies the great amount of time that Gole spends on DuPuy’s experience in WWII. Commissioned in 1941, he was assigned to the extremely dysfunctional 90th Infantry Division, a unit that was almost disbanded after its baptism of fire and which saw two of its commanders fired for incompetence. But the 90th ID soldiered on, developing expertise in the grisliest of schools, the hedgerows of Normandy. It was here, in combat, that DuPuy learned the lessons he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

Most readers familiar with the Vietnam War will of course recognize DuPuy either from his time as Westmoreland’s chief planner at MACV, or his command of the 1st Infantry Division. In both cases, DuPuy exhibited great energy, an unflagging faith in firepower and a steady conviction that the way to win the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam was to kill as many enemy combatants as possible. Some will also recall that he set something of a record, relieving more field-grade officers than any other general, to include somewhere between nine and 13 battalion commanders during his tenure. But this, like his obsession with small-unit tactics (taken to the extent of conducting individual training himself…at the squad level sometimes), stemmed from those hard days in WWII when he saw what happened when unqualified or lazy officers took men into combat. (In just their first six weeks of combat in WWII, the 90th suffered 100 percent casualties among the enlisted, and 150 percent casualties among the officers. By the end of the war, the division’s overall casualty rate was 196 percent.) In Gole’s book, we hear from his admirers and his detractors on all of these points and much more, and the reader is left to make up his own mind. This is good.

DuPuy’s role after Vietnam also exhibited this same dedication. He was instrumental in creating a renaissance that helped pull the Army out of its post-Vietnam doldrums. The generation that fought and won in the Gulf War of 1991 were DuPuy’s direct intellectual descendents— even though, one might argue, it was also his legacy of firepower-über-alles that was the intellectual foundation for our unsuccessful counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2007. Only more time will tell on that count. His intellectual opposite was, of course, Creighton Abrams.

Technically, the term hagiography refers to the ecclesiastic study of the saints of Catholicism. More often in modern usage, however, it is a way to describe a biography that is so over-the-moon for the subject that he or she is essentially indistinguishable from a Christian saint. Given the chance to revise his 1992 work on General Abrams, author Lewis Sorley took a pass and essentially allowed his original hagiographic work to stand as is. This is too bad. Abrams’ memory deserves better.

There is no denying that Abrams was one of the best combat leaders this, or any, country has ever produced. A 1935 West Point graduate, Abrams was a battalion commander and then a combat commander (equivalent to a regiment or brigade in the force structure of the WWII armored divisions) in the American blitz across France and Germany in 1944 and 1945. Abrams commanded the 37th Tank Battalion in the 4th Armored Division, usually from the very front. His battalion—and sometimes his own tank—was the leading element of General George Patton’s entire offensive. (Indeed Patton himself said that he had only one peer, and it was then–Lt. Col. Abrams.) He was not only an inspirational leader of men, he was also a lethal combatant in his own right—an unstoppable combination.

Later, as the deputy commander to General William Westmoreland in Vietnam, and then as the commander, MACV, Abrams again found himself the center of national attention just as he had when he wore a younger man’s clothes. Like DuPuy, he gave all he had to the Army; he too tried to save the lives of the men under him even as he sought to accomplish the military and political goals set before him by the nation. But unlike Gole’s depiction of DuPuy, the image we get of Abrams from Sorley is pure adulation. This is a shame because Abrams was a man, and like all men he must have had at least some flaws. Showing those flaws would have given us a realistic understanding of the man, an understanding from which we might have learned something. As it stands, however, this book is little more than a collection of de facto love poems for a general who would himself likely have disapproved. We can only wait and hope for a future work that will do credit and justice to the whole man.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here