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The Better War That Never Was

The Better War That Never Was

Mini Teaser: The "better-war" thesis blames generals for failed wars and misses the crucial role of faulty strategies. William Westmoreland's Vietnam ordeal offers a case in point. He deserves better than this latest assault by Lewis Sorley.

by Author(s): Gian P. Gentile

The better-war thesis, with its seductively simple cause-and-effect schema, buries the reality of American strategic failure in Vietnam.

SORLEY HAS a history with the better-war thesis. Over the last fifteen years, he has written four books that frame the thesis as it relates to Vietnam. First came a biography of Creighton Abrams as a World War II tank hero. He was portrayed as a near-perfect soldier and general who grasped early what was needed to win in Vietnam. Next, Sorley penned a biography of General Harold K. Johnson, army chief of staff during the Vietnam War years, who, says Sorley, also perceived a better way in Vietnam. Then in 1999, Sorley wrote A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Here the better-war thesis reaches its apogee. Sorley blasts Westmoreland for botching the war. Then Abrams rides onto the scene to rescue the effort and, according to Sorley, actually won it by 1971—only to have it lost years later by weak American politicians. The new Westmoreland biography amplifies this interpretation.

Sorley concedes that Westmoreland had some redeeming qualities, displayed during his many years in the military, but ultimately he failed because other aspects of his character undermined his effectiveness. Sorley portrays the general as overly ambitious and lacking in feeling for the soldiers who served under him.

It is the Vietnam story that constitutes the heart of the book. In these highly critical chapters, Sorley seeks to show that Westmoreland didn’t understand the war he was fighting. In this view, Westmoreland failed to grasp that the key to success was to focus on the South Vietnamese population through programs of pacification and to win their hearts and minds while simultaneously building up the South Vietnamese security forces. Instead, according to Sorley, Westmoreland directed the army to fight a “big-unit” war designed to search out and destroy the main forces of the communist enemy in the South. Sorley’s Westmoreland was stuck in a World War II battlefield mentality, unable to comprehend the demands of counterinsurgency and the necessity of pacifying the countryside. Sorley’s Westmoreland simply didn’t care about pacification and proved unable to see the “better war” that was available to him if only he had chosen it—that is, the war later pursued by General Abrams.

Sorley’s history often lacks rigor. The book’s harsh interpretation of Westmoreland’s performance flies in the face of contradictory archival evidence, which suggests a need for a more nuanced and balanced approach. A large body of Vietnam War scholarship has emerged over the last twenty years that rebuts the Sorley thesis. In 1988, historian Ronald Spector argued that despite the marked differences in personality between Westmoreland and Abrams, they didn’t really differ much in the way that they fought the war. More recently, in 2006, army historian Graham Cosmas argued in a book on the Vietnam army command that there was more “continuity” than “discontinuity” between Westmoreland and Abrams in their military tactics. And in 2008, another army historian named Andrew Birtle, in an award-winning article in the Journal of Military History, effectively rebutted a major component of the better-war thesis—namely, that a 1965 study of the war had repudiated Westmoreland’s military approach. Not true, argued Birtle. He showed that the report actually agreed with Westmoreland’s overall aim of using search and destroy to reduce the communist main-force units in South Vietnam to allow pacification to proceed. Yet, despite this robust body of competing scholarship, Sorley’s arguments have remained largely unchanged.

Indeed, the archival record shows that Westmoreland cared deeply about pacification and winning South Vietnamese hearts and minds. In late 1965, shortly after the Battle of Ia Drang, the general told his division commanders not to become enamored with these kinds of battlefield successes against the North Vietnamese Army because “pacification” and “protection” of the population remained the most important goals. In May 1968, in his final guidance to subordinate commanders, Westmoreland still maintained that “pacification must be supported,” not just by the American military but also by “all elements of the Government of Vietnam.”

Sorley constructs a picture of Westmoreland as the dolt-general who was unable to see the better war in front of his eyes when nearly everybody else saw it, from the secretary of defense down to the lowest private. Sorley cites a statement by U.S. Navy Admiral Ulysses S. G. Sharp, who reportedly was highly critical of Westmoreland’s Vietnam strategy. According to Sorley, Sharp warned Westmoreland that Vietnam was different from past wars and that Westmoreland needed to adjust his strategy accordingly. But there is evidence that Sharp believed Westmoreland had it right. He once stated that he considered Westmoreland’s strategy of search and destroy to be both well conceived and entirely appropriate to the ground-battle conditions of Vietnam.

OTHER CRITICAL facts also were left out of the book. For example, in 1967 Westmoreland initiated one of the most lauded American organizations in support of pacification: Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). American counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who served as a special adviser to General Petraeus during the surge of troops in Iraq, recently called for a “Global CORDS” program modeled on the Vietnam CORDS to counter radical Islamic terrorists. Sorley doesn’t mention CORDS, perhaps because it would fly in the face of his argument that Westmoreland didn’t care about pacification or the imperative of winning hearts and minds. But if Westmoreland didn’t care, why did he start CORDS and initiate a significant reorganization of his army to support it?

Another omission concerns Westmoreland’s time as superintendent of West Point from 1960 to 1963, just before he got his Vietnam command. During his years as superintendent, Westmoreland worked assiduously to integrate the most cutting-edge ideas on counterinsurgency into the cadet-training programs and curricula. The changes he helped establish make clear his commitment to understanding this new counterinsurgency warfare. Westmoreland also organized counterinsurgency conferences at West Point and brought in such speakers as the French counterinsurgency expert David Galula. Sorley slights Westmoreland’s efforts to understand counterinsurgency during this time.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to suggest that historians can include everything in their narratives. They must make choices. But they should acknowledge contradictions when they occur and attempt to reconcile them if possible.

The documentary record shows that Westmoreland thoroughly understood the war he was fighting and saw that pacification and protection of the South Vietnamese people were keys to success. But he also faced the significant threat of hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese and Vietcong main-force army units operating within South Vietnam. Some counterinsurgency experts have suggested that Westmoreland should have played down this threat and committed the American military to winning “hearts and minds” by dispersing the U.S. Army into small outposts to live amongst the population. This would have been a disaster. Such an approach would have decimated Westmoreland’s army piece by piece. Such small outposts amongst the population would have been overrun and destroyed by the large communist main-force units.

The hard truth of the Vietnam War is that Westmoreland adapted throughout the conflict and embraced many innovative methods of counterinsurgency, yet the United States still lost the war. It was a searing national experience that left a blot upon the American consciousness for a generation. And that no doubt has contributed to the country’s sometimes faulty memory of those disturbing years.

The eminent British military historian Richard Holmes learned through his research on World War I veterans that he could not trust the recollections of these soldiers who fought in the trenches. In a mere handful of years, he discovered, their memory of that war “differed widely” from what actually happened. So too with Vietnam. If the passing of time contorted the memories of British soldiers after the horrors of World War I, it seems likely that American soldiers after Vietnam experienced a similar fluctuation of memory. This is significant because Sorley’s strongest indictments of Westmoreland are based on postwar interviews. Many of the interviews were conducted twenty, thirty and even forty years after the war. No doubt interviews relying on memories of war can be useful in research, but they must be used carefully, particularly decades after the event. Better primary sources are contemporaneous accounts and records. As noted above, records on the Vietnam experience are abundant. Yet Sorley bases his charges against Westmoreland largely on the memories of those involved in the war.

The Vietnam defeat was traumatic for many Americans, and it is natural that some would focus on Westmoreland as the single point of failure for America’s loss. But that begs the question of whether such scrutiny is fair to a general who was handed a difficult strategic challenge in a war where he was one of many agents. Sorley and others should think hard on what they have done to the character and reputation of General Westmoreland.

This is not to argue that Westmoreland was a great general. But he unquestionably was a competent general who understood the war he was fighting and carried it out as best he could. Westmoreland’s failure, like so many others during that tragic war, was his inability to see that the war could not be won at a cost that was acceptable to the American people. Just like the American generals of today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westmoreland in the end put too much faith in the efficacy of American military power when he should have discerned its limits. And so the Vietnam War trundled on, as the Iraq and Afghan wars have, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese as it unfolded. Ironically, with all of the hoopla over General Petraeus and the so-called success of the surge, his inability to understand the limits of American military power puts him much more closely in line with Westmoreland than many people realize.

Pullquote: The essential insight from Vietnam is that the crucial elements in war are not smarter tactics, better generals or more malleable popular support but clear-headed thinking about policy and strategy.Image: Essay Types: Book Review