WESTMORELAND: The General Who Lost Vietnam

Lewis Sorley’s eviscerating biography of GEN William Childs Westmoreland, USA, is long overdue, powerful for its restraint and careful annotation, and a complete treatment of a man who caused tremendous damage to his Army and his country. Sorley guides us with steady hand down the fast-running river that was Westmoreland’s career, sweeping us along as we hear with mounting horror the roar of the falls ahead. When the ship of American state is sunk in Vietnam, Westmoreland is still sure he was right, rewarded by promotion upstairs, dedicated to his last unhappy breath in 2005 to justifying his deeply wrong strategy of bloody attrition in that war.

Sorley is a retired Army officer, a West Point graduate and veteran of both Vietnam and the Pentagon, and with four previous books on Vietnam and Army generals he can get right to the point. Within five pages we are into Westmoreland’s incandescent and uniquely American career: handsome, jut-jawed small town Eagle Scout matriculates into one of history’s most successful West Point classes (six four-stars); rises swiftly to battalion command in combat at age 28 and known to his men as “Superman”; colonel at 30; regimental command at 31; four-star theater command at 52; and then Army Chief of Staff. He was no small threat for the Presidency, a threat that President Lyndon B.

Johnson himself took seriously enough, Sorley asserts, to keep Westmoreland in Vietnam. Yet Westmoreland is “awed by his own magnificence”; stubborn, incurious, or even “dumb”; prone to fall asleep in briefings and—far worse—to blame subordinates for his own lethal mistakes. His belief, hardened in World War II, was that throwing more men with larger weapons into a war would solve challenges from the tactical to the strategic level. For the Vietnam War this belief was a very serious problem, the basis for all the others, in conducting a campaign described by one of his generals as “eighty percent ideas.”

Westmoreland, said his executive officer and future four-star general Volney Warner years later, quite simply “didn’t understand the war then, doesn’t understand it now.” To the highly complex Vietnam insurgency question, Westmoreland’s confident, one-word answer—“firepower”—led to America’s 10 years gone and more than 57,000 lives lost. Rather than try to understand the war in his 4 years commanding Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Westmoreland spent himself impressing Washington patrons who could get him the top slot in the corporation rather than listening to his generals warning of military disasters, or to his civilian advisors documenting the South Vietnamese Government’s corruption and incom-petence, which Westmoreland insist-ed America bankroll. It is more heartbreaking and infuriating that he ignored soldiers and Marines in the field, who beginning with the 1965 disaster in the Ia Drang Valley were outmatched in the running jungle war to which they brought, at Westmoreland’s direction, “beat the Nazis” tactics, weapons, and training.

Dr. Don Chisholm has pointed out that as a leader matures into high-level positions his courage must move from the realm of the physical to that of the moral. GEN William Westmoreland, in his years in Saigon and as Army Chief of Staff, demonstrated neither type. “He had a way of creating a truth in his own behalf,” said a junior officer of GEN Westmoreland’s. Lewis Sorley at last sets the record straight.

WESTMORELAND: The General Who Lost Vietnam.

By Lewis Sorley.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2011
ISBN 0547518269, 395 pp.
$30.00 (Member $27.00)

An Overdue Biography