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Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam
by Lewis Sorley
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0547518269, Hardcover)Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Lewis Sorley
Q: How can the loss of Vietnam be blamed on Westmoreland?
A: He served for four years as U.S. commander there during the crucial period of the buildup of American ground forces, a flood that eventually reached 543,400 due to Westmoreland’s repeated requests for more and more troops. Given a free hand in deciding how to conduct the war within South Vietnam, he chose to pursue an unavailing war of attrition, which failed miserably. Westmoreland thus squandered four years of support by Congress, much of the American people, and even the media.
Q: How did a man as limited as Westmoreland achieve such high rank and position?
A: Fueled by ambition, Westmoreland drove himself relentlessly. He was of impressive military mien, energetic, effective at self-promotion, and skillful in cultivating influential sponsors. From his earliest days of service he led his contemporaries, was admired and advanced by his seniors, and progressed rapidly upward. Westmoreland’s strengths eventually propelled him to a level beyond his understanding and abilities.
Q: What was Westmoreland’s approach as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam?
A: Westmoreland decided to conduct a war of attrition in which the measure of merit would be body count, the number of enemy killed. His premise was that if he killed enough of their soldiers, the enemy would lose heart and cease its aggression against South Vietnam. He went about this primarily through the use of search and destroy tactics, often involving very large operations in the jungles near South Vietnam’s western borders with Laos and Cambodia.
Meanwhile he neglected other crucially important tasks, such as strengthening South Vietnam’s military forces and rooting out the covert infrastructure that enabled the enemy to use coercion and terror to dominate South Vietnam’s rural populace. He was successful in killing a large number of enemy troops, but this did not represent the progress he claimed; the communists simply replaced their losses and continued to fight. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.
Q: What are the sources for your account of Westmoreland’s life and career?
A: Westmoreland himself provided extensive—and revealing—archival material. His papers, on deposit at the University of South Carolina, run to many thousands of pages. I spent four months going through them.
I interviewed about 175 people who had known and served with Westmoreland over the years. One of the most important, and most helpful, was General Bruce Palmer Jr., with whom I spoke dozens of times. Having been Westmoreland’s West Point classmate, then having served under him in Vietnam and subsequently as his Vice Chief of Staff, General Palmer was an authoritative, sympathetic, and invaluable source of both factual information and sensitive insights.
Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impression of General Westmoreland?
A: It is not a happy story, but I believe it is an important, even essential, one. Unless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never fully understand what happened to us in Vietnam, or why.
In the end, of course, this is the story of an officer whose strengths propelled him to a level of responsibility beyond his capacity. From early days prideful and image-conscious, Westmoreland developed into a man of incredible industry, driving himself to achieve, forever in a rush, with unbounded ambition and no apparent sense of personal limitations—doing it by the book, even though he hadn’t read the book or studied at any of the Army’s great schools. His ultimate failure would have earned him more sympathy, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame by reason of his relentless self-promotion.
Those who have long been Westmoreland admirers and supporters may be offended by an account that, as they will view it, tarnishes his reputation. But many others, I believe, will welcome a factual, detailed, and well-documented explanation of how and why he failed so completely in his most important assignment; what that failure cost us as a nation; and, most important, what it cost the ill-fated South Vietnamese, who risked all and lost all.
(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:40 -0400)
An analysis of the integral role of General William Westmoreland in the Vietnam War traces his prestigious background and rise to the head of the war effort, contending that his failures to understand regional complexities and his loyalty to a flawed strategy were directly responsible for the war's outcome.
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