The Best Defense

Today's list: The top ten reasons Gen. Westmoreland lost the war in Vietnam

By the way, here is the first review I have seen of Sorley's new biography of Westmoreland, which I read in galleys last summer, and enjoyed.

By Lewis Sorley
Best Defense Saigon bureau chief

10. He lacked the schooling and relevant experience to understand the war and devise a viable approach to prosecuting it. He was an artilleryman who missed out on the Army's great schools system, never attending the Command & General Staff College or the Army War College. Overseas during World War II he had limited line duty (16 months of battalion command, then 13 months in staff positions) and of 14 months of command during the Korean War and its immediate aftermath he spent eight months in reserve in Japan and only six months in Korea, and that during the mostly static final months of the war.

9. His senior staff lacked diversity of experience and professional outlook, consisting mostly of people with backgrounds similar to his own, especially airborne. Thus there was little internal capacity for debating or evaluating his chosen course of action.

8. He was uninterested in other viewpoints on how the war might be prosecuted, dismissing the PROVN Study sponsored by Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson (which concluded that Westmoreland's way of war was not working and could not work) and basic disagreements with Westmoreland's organization and approach voiced by his brilliant classmate General Bruce Palmer Jr.

7. He thought he could take over the war from the South Vietnamese, bring it to a successful conclusion, and then hand their country back to them and go home in triumph. He couldn't.

6. He deprived the South Vietnamese of modern weaponry, giving U.S. and other allied forces priority for issue of the new M-16 rifle and other advanced military wherewithal. The South Vietnamese thus went for years equipped with castoff WWII-vintage U.S. equipment while outgunned by the communists, who were armed with the AK-47 assault rifle and other top of the line equipment.

5. He denied senior civilian officials accurate data on enemy strength and composition, during development of a 1967 Special National Intelligence Estimate imposing a ceiling on the number of enemy forces his intelligence officers could report or agree to and personally removing from the order of battle entire categories that had long been included, thus falsely portraying progress in reducing enemy strength.

4. His war of attrition, search and destroy tactics, and emphasis on body count did nothing to affect the war in the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam, where the enemy's covert infrastructure was left free to continue using coercion and terror to dominate the rural populace.

3. He underestimated the enemy's staying power, maintaining that if he could inflict enough casualties the communists would lose heart and cease their aggression against South Vietnam. Instead the enemy proved willing to absorb horrifying losses and keep fighting. Thus the "progress" Westmoreland claimed in racking up huge body counts did nothing to win the war. The enemy simply kept sending more and more replacements to make up his losses. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.

2. He overestimated the American people's patience and tolerance of friendly losses. On a visit to Vietnam Senator Hollings from Westmoreland's home state of South Carolina was told by Westmoreland: "We're killing these people," the enemy, "at a ratio of 10 to 1." Said Hollings, "Westy, the American people don't care about the ten. They care about the one." Westmoreland didn't get it.

1. And the number one reason why Westmoreland lost the war in Vietnam: With his unavailing approach to conduct of the war he squandered four years of support by much of the American people, the Congress, and even the media.

Lewis Sorley's new book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, is being published today by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

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