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Slayer or strategist?

The general who led US military operations in Vietnam is vilified as a failed tactician who pursued military aims regardless of the human cost. A new history by a retired colonel is rather more forgiving, Steve Donoghue writes
General William Westmoreland, right, reviewing the US army’s first infantry division in Vietnam in 1966. Co Rentmeester / Time Life Staff
General William Westmoreland, right, reviewing the US army’s first infantry division in Vietnam in 1966. Co Rentmeester / Time Life Staff

For four transformative years, from 1964 to 1968, General William Westmoreland was in command of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), and for half a century since then, his name has become a synonym for heedless authoritarianism, jut-jawed brutality and a crass self-justification – in short, he became the face of American military interventionism at its loutish worst.

He was criticised in his own day for his tone-deaf approach to the complexities of the Vietnam War, his insistence on massive conventional manoeuvres against a highly fragmented guerrilla resistance, and his relentless pursuit of “high body counts” achieved by means of “big unit” confrontations and “search and destroy” missions that were famously indiscriminating in their choice of targets. And historians ever since have been almost unanimous in their condemnation, with their standard-bearer surely being Lewis Sorley in his scorching 2011 indictment, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. That book outlined in damning detail the case against its subject: everything from ignoring his tactical advisers in order to pursue a bludgeon-style “war of attrition” against the Vietcong to lying about enemy strength levels to his civilian superiors back in Washington.

This version of Westmoreland – an unimaginative troop-butcher hopelessly out of his depth in unconventional jungle warfare – has become a baleful fixture in most standard narratives of the war, and it’s this version that’s sharply contested in Westmoreland’s War, the new book by US army colonel and West Point graduate Gregory Daddis. “Perhaps it is time to stop blaming one general for a failed strategy and examine the American experience not based only on the war’s outcome,” Daddis writes.

“Perhaps the time has come to envisage Westmoreland not as a bad general, but rather as a good general fighting a bad war.”

Daddis calls the argument that the US army under Westmoreland lost the war because of wrongheaded strategies “wildly simplistic”; in defiance of historical consensus, he maintains that the general has become the “scapegoat” in a “flawed narrative” of the Vietnam War.

Rehabilitating the reputation of Westmoreland must surely qualify as one of the most quixotic tasks any historian could undertake, and Daddis sets to work with admirable energy. His book is comparatively short – only a little under 200 pages, with an additional close-typed 50 pages of endnotes – but it’s as muscular and thought-provoking a work on the Vietnam War as has appeared in decades. The kind of debates it will certainly start are the kind of debates worth having. As the subtitle of Daddis’s book hints, the debate here inevitably comes down to a question of strategy.

And on that question, Daddis claims historians often go astray. “In large part, this potential for confusion stems from the fact that strategy is both a concept and a process,” he writes. “It is an idea – and a highly contingent one – for how military force should be used to achieve political objectives, as well as the way such force actually is employed in a time of war.”

Westmoreland’s critics have maintained that he cared little or nothing for political objectives, that his stressing of high “body-counts” in dozens of bloody search-and-destroy missions was his clear priority and the extent of what he really understood about the conflict.

Daddis disagrees with this almost completely. He grudgingly admits that Westmoreland praised (“perhaps unwisely”) the virtues of sheer thundering physical attrition of the enemy, and he concedes that this kind of attrition-based warfare might have been fundamentally misguided, “especially in light of the evidence which showed the enemy had increased its combat numbers through infiltration and recruitment”.

Daddis mentions that “the use of firepower also came with a price” – in the form of countless North Vietnamese civilians burnt, shot, orphaned and dispossessed – but he insists on exactly what Westmoreland insisted on in his 1976 memoir A Soldier Reports: that every effort was made to avoid those civilian casualties. With the possible exception of its own author, Daddis might very well be the only person in the last 38 years to take A Soldier Reports completely at face value.

The main problem with Daddis’s assessment of his subject is this lack of middle ground between critic and acolyte. In his view, it isn’t just that Westmoreland was “a good general fighting a bad war”, it’s that he was a perfect paragon of a general constantly disappointed by the shortcomings of those around him. When the report of PROVN (Program for the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam) was issued in March 1966, calling the US mission only “marginally effective” and accusing MACV of being obsessed with “purely military activities”, it was a mortifying vote of no-confidence.

But Daddis writes it off: “Westmoreland’s critics later would charge that the MACV commander [was] contemptuous of those challenging his strategic concepts … In truth, the report provided few truly new ideas.” When the general’s half-hearted attempts at winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population of the South met with failure, it’s the civilians who are at fault:

“Westmoreland might have seen the war from a holistic perspective, but implementing his strategy through uncertain allies frustrated the general’s otherwise well-conceived plans.”

When the general’s half-hearted attempts at counterinsurgency met with failure, it’s his subordinates who are at fault: “Planning, of course, does not equal execution. Just because a higher level staff plans for a broad counterinsurgency campaign does not mean field units fully understand the plan or are willing to follow it.”

PROVN couldn’t manage to see the very thing they’d been sent to investigate; uncertain allies betrayed the general’s holistic vision; dodgy subordinates lacked the faith – a pattern starts to emerge, and it does Daddis no favours. The only thing less believable than a Westmoreland who can’t do anything right is a Westmoreland who can’t do anything wrong.

Daddis reminds us that “the South Vietnamese government lacked the capacity to protect its people” and asks: “Was this failure Westmoreland’s fault?” Two generations of the general’s critics would say yes, it was, since ensuring the capacity of the South Vietnamese government to protect its people was supposed to be a big part of his job – bigger, in fact, than bulldozing villages and carpet-bombing rice paddies.

As Daddis faithfully reports, in The United States in Vietnam (published in 1967, while Westmoreland was still in command), George Kahin and John Lewis write that South Vietnam “must be able to engage in political activity under conditions in which the American presence is not dominant and the conduct of military operations is not the overriding consideration.”

Daddis insists that “through the first half of 1968, such conditions simply did not exist”, and he genuinely doesn’t seem to see that this fact doesn’t exonerate his hero but rather damns him. Under Westmoreland’s successor, Gen Creighton Abrams, those conditions were rapidly coming to exist – mainly, Westmoreland’s detractors would say, because Abrams began to implement some of the “counterinsurgency” and “pacification” protocols Westmoreland had slighted or ignored in favour of saturation mortar attacks.

Of course, Abrams was responsible for a good many bloodbaths himself, and, long before the Americans came along, the French were finding plenty of ways to lose a counterinsurgency war in the same valleys and highlands. Whether any American strategy in Vietnam would ever have worked long-term is one of the many vitally interesting questions raised by Daddis’s book, and it’s a shame readers can only reach those interesting questions by sifting around in the soup of acronyms and double-talk Daddis uses to cloak his subject’s stupidity.

“Matching available means to strategic ends,” he writes, “Westmoreland devised an operational plan that accorded well with the complex realities of the Vietnamese revolutionary war.” But as the author himself tells us: “Above all, strategy must be effective.” If Daddis can look at Westmoreland’s tenure as commander of MACV and see anything effective, he’s got what could only be called a blinding gift for optimism.

Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: January 30, 2014 04:00 AM

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