HOW HE SEES IT Westy: Fine man, failed commander
By ARTHUR I. CYR
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
Army Gen. William Westmoreland died this week, providing occasion to reflect on the interplay among leadership, strategy and war. Westy throughout his life stood out as intensely dedicated, which makes the ultimate frustration of his mission in Vietnam in the 1960s all the more significant.
David Halberstam in "The Best and the Brightest" describes him playing tennis even in the hottest weather to maintain the trim physique that would inspire discipline in the troops. During his four years of Vietnam command from 1964 to 1968, Westmoreland worked punishing hours. No headquarters-bound leader, he was in the field relentlessly, setting the right example. That was the sort of effort that had made him a two-star general at a precociously young age.
Yet following the Tet offensive of early 1968, the Johnson administration shifted gears to emphasize disengagement. LBJ himself surprisingly retired from office. Westmoreland was also retired, kicked upstairs as chief of staff of the Army, a senior post but effectively removed from Southeast Asia policy by the successor Nixon administration.
Westmoreland, photogenic and commanding, had been the media point man for a Vietnam strategy that emphasized large-scale conventional military operations and highly quantitative measures of progress, in particular body counts and weapons captured. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara pressed the approach of victory through arithmetic.
Even early in the war, U.S. Army iconoclasts such as Col. John Paul Vann challenged that approach, arguing that in view of American firepower, increasing corpses and firearms collected only meant the enemy was becoming stronger.
Later, Westmoreland emphasized that the Tet offensive was an enemy failure, which was true. The Viet Cong was virtually wiped out and territory they captured was generally quickly retaken. However, the more fundamental point is that the attacks devastated public opinion in the United States. The Nixon administration was able to maintain support for continued fighting only by steadily reducing U.S. force levels.
Emphasis in South Vietnam in the 1960s was to make our side more like us through enormous aid combined with fitful promotion of democracy, including a 1967 election that underscored the disorder of the South Vietnamese regime.
Late in the war, Congress acted to force greater communication between the military and the CIA, which had proven remarkably accurate in analysis of the enemy. Westmoreland, an honest man, unintentionally fostered an intelligence system that emphasized his own endless optimism. His ultimate failure was one of imagination.
Westmoreland never evinced much interest in knowing the enemy, an error corrected by his successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams. By contrast, Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh early on had worked at odd jobs, including hotel employee, in Boston, New York, and Paris.
William Westmoreland, fine man and failed commander, reminds us that in war good intentions are not enough.
X Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of "After the Cold War,' NYU Press.