on Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Lewis Sorley’s histories of the Vietnam War are routinely described as “revisionary.” He firmly asserts that the war was won in 1970. Why should that matter now, especially if you believe that the United States should not have gone to war in Indochina in the first place?

WestmorelandCover.jpgBut Richard Nixon “revised” Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policies and war strategies, just as Barack Obama has “revised” George Bush’s. Aside from being well-written and engaging, Sorley’s books help us understand America’s willingness to go to war, the interplay between politicians and the military, and the ambivalence of elected officials as the corpses return home. Nothing much has changed since 1965 when the Democrats ramped up their war. There is always another side to the story of America's military ventures.

Three years before North Vietnamese troops took Saigon in 1975, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest claimed the inside track on explaining how the U.S. had lost a war it was still fighting. He vividly portrayed the period’s politicians and statesmen as they defeated themselves through hubris, faulty assumptions, and the grinding momentum of bureaucracy. He offered no hierarchy of errors, no single overarching cause for defeat – except for a collective benightedness so profound as to make defeat seem inevitable in hindsight. Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War,” featuring Robert McNamara’s take on “lessons” learned, proves the persistence of Halberstam’s blunder-oriented perspective – and Morris’ chilly editing suggests a war unnecessary and unwinnable to begin with.

WestmorelandTime.jpegThis perspective of the Vietnam war is arguably the country’s dominant narrative, though the story is hardly told at all these days. But when it comes to spending trillions and killing thousands, we remain the same country we were on November 3, 1969, when President Nixon gave his “silent majority” speech on television. In the days following that national address, those approving of his handling of the war rose sharply from 58 to 77 percent (he had just signed an order to reduce the American force by 68,000). Researching for a novel, I’ve lately interviewed several veterans of Alpha Company, 3rd Brigade, 25th Division, and found that they agree with the Halberstam/Morris version – except for one point. They believe the war was winnable, but not while it was commanded by General William Westmoreland.

WestmorelandLBJ.jpegIn June, 1968, General Creighton Abrams took the reins in Vietnam. Sorley detailed the changes and subsequent victories that resulted in A Better War (1999). A WWII and Korean War mentality, Westmoreland had favored multi-battalion and even multi-division sweeps through jungle terrain, thinking that the NVA would eventually run out of fighters. He sanguinely predicted to President Johnson that the war would be over by the summer of 1967. Then came the Tet Offensive in January, 1968. As General Fred Weyand later noted, “The tactics changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams’s taking command.”

But from the military’s point of view, it was already too late – not because of defeat on the ground, but because of weariness at home. Sorley wrote, “In the latter years the press simply missed the war … much of what constituted the most important aspects of the war was difficult to portray … the distribution of land to the peasantry, the returned refugees, the miracle rice harvests, roads kept open for farm to market traffic, the elections and training of officials … There came a time when the war was won.” General Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, complained, “It seems impossible to get the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, equally or more important than the President, to realize that they are dealing from a position of military strength.”

WestmortelsndField.jpgSorley is still fuming. He returns to his subject with Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (Sorley produced a respectful biography of Abrams in 1992.) Weyand, who served with both commanders, said that after Tet the Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, realized that Westmoreland simply had no plan to win the war. “Westy believes the war begins and ends with killing VC,” said one report. Sorley’s biographical mission is to describe the type of personal and military psyche that can so blindly, and in his view, ignorantly go to battle. The portrait isn’t entirely condemnatory. Westmoreland was neither unskilled nor unconscientious. But there are ample witnesses eager to attest to his stupidity, vanity, blandness, misplaced belief, and outright deceit. Sorley’s riveting chapter on Westmoreland’s failure to sufficiently arm and train South Vietnamese forces uncovers one of his most arrogant blunders.

Unlike the journalists who have written our core Vietnam narratives, Sorley is a military man – a West Point graduate with a two-decade service record in the U.S. army who served in Vietnam and at the Pentagon (reporting to Westmoreland), as well as a civilian official in the CIA. His military histories (this is his fifth) are well researched, lively and rich – and his perspective begins from the inside of HQ looking out:

Westmoreland.jpg“General DePuy – the architect of search and destroy – had once said, in what he called a ‘coldly realistic’ assessment of the situation, ‘We are going to stomp them to death. I don’t know any other way.’ In a much later interview, by then considerably chastened, he explained the outcome: ‘We were arrogant because we were Americans and we were soldiers or marines and we could do it, but it turned out that it was a faulty concept, given the sanctuaries, given the fact that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was never closed. It was a losing concept of operation.”

This was the situation that Creighton Abrams sought to rapidly change, and apparently did.

But as in Iraq, after the smoke clears the emerging truth on the ground cannot justify all of the shed blood and ruination. A former Viet Cong colonel, Pham Xuan An, said this about the war: “All that talk about ‘liberation’ twenty, thirty, forty years ago, all the plotting, and all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.”

[Published October 11, 2011. 395 pages, $30.00 hardcover, $13.49 Kindle, paperback edition due October, 2012]