Good Intentions

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tanner Curtis for TIME

In his 1955 classic The Quiet American, Graham Greene adroitly foresaw the tragic and absurd quality that came to characterize U.S. intervention in Vietnam. In the novel, a naive, priggish American spy, Alden Pyle, backs a rogue Vietnamese army's bid to free the country from both communism and French colonialism. After its operatives detonate a car bomb in Saigon, Pyle is assassinated for his role in the plot. "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," the narrator, a British journalist, says of him.

Less than 10 years later, that summing up was made flesh in the person of William Childs Westmoreland — the Vietnam War warrior whose disastrous leadership of the first four years of U.S. combat, from 1964 to '68, forms the heart of Lewis Sorley's Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. It's a sweeping, 416-page study, based on dozens of interviews and years of archival research, and tells how a promising young infantry commander, promoted to a role beyond his competence, led U.S. forces into a ruinous imbroglio.

Sorley is a pre-eminent historian of the Vietnam War and has no truck with the notion that Westmoreland was merely one player among a toxic mix of ill-informed Washington policymakers. Instead he pillories the hapless general for what are now seen as horrendous gaffes of counterinsurgency: alienating the press, embellishing body counts and relying on search-and-destroy missions that produced dramatic kill rates without offering long-term strategic benefit. This is one of several works to argue that the general's costly war of attrition, along with the failure to build up South Vietnam's military strength, got the U.S. off to a terrible start in the conflict. Sorley's 1999 Pulitzer-nominated A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam claimed as much, with such rigor that it influenced debates within the Pentagon over the Iraq troop surge of 2007.

Westmoreland isn't in the same league. Sorley sometimes gives erratic soapboxes to the general's detractors without logical flow or analysis. And being committed to the idea that defeat was not predestined, he fails to adequately address the backstory. Westmoreland was apparently vainglorious — "He loved being on TV," said a Washington Post correspondent in Saigon, "and it tainted him not only in the eyes of the press but in the eyes of a lot of military men." But it is also true that in betraying its World War II ally, the widely respected Ho Chi Minh, and in setting up a corrupt and incompetent government in South Vietnam, the U.S. planted the seeds of calamity well before a shot was fired.

With his campaign a failure, Westmoreland was sent back to Washington in 1968 and allowed to see out his career in the face-saving position of Army chief of staff, retiring in 1972. He spent the rest of his life trying, and failing, to restore his military reputation, even suing CBS for libel over a 1982 documentary alleging he had knowingly underestimated enemy numbers (the case was settled out of court).

By the time of his death in 2005, his mistakes were being studied by a new generation of military leaders. In 2006, General David Petraeus published his Counterinsurgency Field Manual, drawing on the failures of Vietnam and setting out a template for his own conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, in contrast to Westmoreland, he attempted to deploy political nous alongside brute force. Yet as those conflicts have shown, counterinsurgency remains a devilishly difficult pursuit. In the face of hangdog troop withdrawals, daily violence continues to plague both countries. Years after the start of U.S. intervention, both remain chaotic and deeply troubled. Hopefully, it's for the very best of motives.