My brief respite in Hong Kong seemed to have gone by in a heartbeat, as the personnel transport truck’s tires squished over the muddy road past Vietnamese vendors squatting in their shanties. The only redeeming part of the gloomy ride from the Da Nang airbase to the transient barracks at Camp Tien Sha was the fact that it had stopped raining an hour or so earlier. I tucked my nose into my T-shirt, hoping an aromatic reminder of the civilized world would block out the foul smell of nuc mam, a popular fermented fish sauce, along with the stench of human waste. “You see Westmoreland back at the airport?” the Marine sitting next to me inquired. I rubbed at the itching, still-healing wound on my neck—a reminder of the Battle of Hue. Sure, I’d seen him…and his entourage of photographers and suck-ups headed toward a C-130 on the tarmac where our somber group of R&R returnees disembarked from a chartered jet.
I thought back to the world I’d left earlier that morning, where generals and their entourages meant nothing to anyone, not even to a 19-year-old E-3 lowlife like me. “Starched jungle greens,” I said to the Marine who asked if I had seen Westmoreland. “They were all wearing starched jungle greens and had polished boots. Where do you suppose they got their jungle greens starched?”
The converted Navy landing craft on which I made the final leg of the trip up the Cua Viet River to Dong Ha snaked around yet another curve, past yet another village. As it did so, a chilling rain and the stink of nuc mam returned. My nose went back under my T-shirt—now covered by a flack jacket—and my thoughts about generals and their suck-ups faded with the welcome taste of hot chocolate a crewman gave me. All I wanted to do, all I cared about, was getting back to the World—where no one envied starched jungle greens and polished jungle boots.
It’s interesting how life assigns us our paths: Almost 30 years to the day later, in early April of 1997, American Legion magazine gave me an assignment to interview General William Westmoreland— an interview that turned out to be the last one he gave any media— and I found myself in the atrium of the long-since-retired general’s home in Charleston, S.C. Sitting across from me, and still poised with a stiff, military demeanor like none I have ever seen before or since, was a man who had begun his career pulling cannons with horses and mules, and ended it advising the president of the United States on such matters as space weapons and nuclear proliferation. The general took me to his den and let me hold the sword General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing had presented him as Cadet First Captain of West Point in 1932. He took me to lunch and then for a long walk along the historic Charleston waterfront. When the interview ended back in his home, I asked him about things I wanted to know personally, as a former member of his command, not as a journalist—such as why the Vietnamese black market always had a full supply of the jungle boots we sometimes found hard to get through normal supply channels. Westmoreland leaned back a bit, his thumb tapping the arm of the chair.
“I wish I had known about that,” the old general confessed to me. Then, sensing an opportunity to speak of frustrations he had never before been given the opportunity to express, “Westy” went on to confess some of his other regrets— much like a father would confess to a son whom he had made some mistakes in raising. He told me he was unabashedly proud of his reputation as a professional soldier who obeyed even the orders with which he did not agree, a soldier who was raised to cherish “honor and duty” and who clung to those concepts his entire career. But, he sighed, he wished he had been more assertive on some issues with his old friend, Lyndon Johnson—especially about going into Cambodia to cut off enemy supply routes. “I always thought he put too much stock in the advice he got from McNamara,” he huffed. “McNamara tended to make decisions based on numbers, not on other factors that should have been considered. It’s no secret I didn’t care much for the man.”
With some reticence he said he regretted letting the day-to-day running of the war keep him from being as forceful about putting his troops first as he always had been before. He regretted that his family life had suffered so much because of the burden of his career. And he regretted the “brouhaha” with Mike Wallace and CBS, which had accused him of inflating body counts on enemy killed—a brouhaha that resulted in a lawsuit he won handily.
Even more, Westmoreland said after an emotional pause and some more thumb tapping on the chair, he regretted the sudden realization that some of his former troops thought of him as a distant, starched-greens, photo-op general—a general who didn’t know his troops were having to forcibly take their jungle boots away from black-marketeers. “I wish I had known about that,” he sighed. “Things would have been different.”
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.