William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War

sorley

W.J. Astore

William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem.  Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly; there was no slouching for Westy.  A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted.  He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68).  His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.

I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend.  (Thanks, Paul!)  Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.

  1. Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
  2. Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
  3. Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought).  He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance.  He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
  4. Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
  5. Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.

Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel.  Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division.  Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.

image

Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex.  Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.”  He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions.  For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.

Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism.  When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count.  (Kinnard refused.)

Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that.  Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail.  Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam.  Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964.  He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out.  It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]

McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.”  In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”

Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed?  Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”

What was that larger purpose?  I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago.  Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development; to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors.  Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace.  Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.

For sure, Westy lost on the battlefield.  But did U.S. economic interests triumph globally due to his punishment of Vietnam and the intimidation it established?  How compelling, how coercive, were such interests?  Think of Venezuela today as it attempts to chart an independent course.  Think of U.S. interest in subordinating Venezuela and its reserves of oil to the agendas of Western investors and corporations.  There are trillions of dollars to be made here, not just from oil, but by preserving the strength of the petrodollar.  (The U.S. dollar’s value is propped up by global oil sales done in dollars, as vouchsafed by leading oil producers like Saudi Arabia.  Venezuela has acted against the petrodollar standard.)

Westy was the wrong man for Vietnam, but he was also a fall guy for a doomed war.  He and the U.S. military did succeed, however, in visiting a level of destruction on that country that sent a message to those who contemplated resisting Western economic demands.  Westy may have been a lousy general, but perhaps he was the perfect message boy for economic interests that prospered more by destruction and intimidation than by traditional victory of arms.

**For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world.  As General Smedley Butler said, sometimes generals are economic hit men, even when they don’t know it.

As a general rule, it’s a lot easier in U.S. politics to sell a war as containing or defeating communist aggression (or radical Islamic terrorism in the case of Iran, or ruthless dictators in the cases of Iraq and Libya) than it is for economic interests and the profits of powerful multinational corporations.  For the average grunt, “Remember Exxon-Mobil!” isn’t much of a battle-cry.

The Atrocious Nature of the Vietnam War

Helicopter_Poster_promoV2

W.J. Astore

“It’s their [South Vietnam’s] war to win. We can help them … but in the final analysis, it’s their people and their government who have to win or lose this struggle.”  President Kennedy in September 1963

“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home [to fight in Vietnam] to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  President Johnson in 1964

I’ve now watched all ten episodes of the Burns/Novick series on the Vietnam War.  I’ve written about it twice already (here and here), and I won’t repeat those arguments.  Critical reviews by Nick Turse, Peter Van Buren, Andrew Bacevich, and Thomas Bass are also well worth reading.

I now know the main message of the series: the Vietnam war was an “irredeemable tragedy,” with American suffering being featured in the foreground.  The ending is revealing.  Feel-good moments of reconciliation between U.S. veterans and their Vietnamese counterparts are juxtaposed with Tim O’Brien reading solemnly from his book on the things American troops carried in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese death toll of three million people is briefly mentioned; so too are the bitter legacies of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance; regional impacts of the war to Laos and Cambodia are briefly examined.  But the lion’s share of the emphasis is on the American experience, with the last episode focusing on subjects like PTSD and the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The series is well made and often powerful.  Its fault is what’s missing.  Little is said about the war being a crime, about the war being immoral and unjust; again, the war is presented as a tragedy, perhaps an avoidable one if only U.S. leaders had been wiser and better informed, or so the series suggests.  No apologies are made for the war; indeed, the only apology featured is by an antiwar protester near the end (she’s sorry today for the harsh words she said decades ago to returning veterans).

The lack of apologies for wide-scale killing and wanton destruction, the lack of serious consideration of the war as a crime, as an immoral act, as unjust, reveals a peculiarly American bias about the war, which Burns/Novick only amplify.  The series presents atrocities like My Lai as aberrations, even though Neil Sheehan is allowed a quick rejoinder about how, if you include massive civilian casualties from U.S. artillery and bombing strikes, My Lai was not aberrational at all.  Not in the sense of killing large numbers of innocent civilians indiscriminately.  Such killing was policy; it was routine.  Sheehan’s powerful observation is not pursued, however.

What the Burns/Novick series truly needed was a two-hour segment devoted exclusively to the destruction inflicted on Southeast Asia and the suffering of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian peoples.  Such a segment would have been truly eye-opening to Americans.  Again, the series does mention napalm, Agent Orange, massive bombing, and the millions of innocents killed by the war.  But images of civilian suffering are as fleeting as they are powerful.  The emphasis is on getting to know the veterans, especially American ones, of that war.  By comparison, the series neglects the profound suffering of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.

In short, the series elides the atrocious nature of the war.  This is not to say that atrocities aren’t mentioned.  My Lai isn’t ignored.  But it’s juxtaposed with communist atrocities, such as the massacre of approximately 2500 prisoners after the Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive, a war crime committed by retreating North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces.

Yet in terms of scale and frequency the worst crimes were committed by U.S. forces, again because they relied so heavily on massive firepower and indiscriminate bombing.  I’ve written about this before, citing Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves, as well as the writings of Bernard Fall, who said that indiscriminate bombing attacks showed the U.S. was not “able to see the Vietnamese as people against whom crimes can be committed.  This is the ultimate impersonalization of war.”

Why did many Americans come to kill “anything that moves” in Vietnam?  Why, in the words of Fall, did U.S. officialdom fail to see the peoples of Southeast Asia as, well, people?  Fellow human beings?

The Burns/Novick series itself provides evidence to tackle this question, as follows:

  1. At the ground level, U.S. troops couldn’t identify friend from foe, breeding confusion, frustration, and a desire for revenge after units took casualties. It’s said several times in the series that U.S. troops thought they were “chasing ghosts,” “phantoms,” a “shadowy” enemy that almost always had the initiative.  In American eyes, it wasn’t a fair fight, so massive firepower became the equalizer for the U.S.—and a means to get even.
  2. Racism, depersonalization, and alienation.  U.S. troops routinely referred to the enemy by various racist names: gooks, dinks, slopes, and so on. (Interestingly, communist forces seem to have referred to Americans as “bandits” or “criminals,” negative terms but not ones dripping with racism.)  Many U.S. troops also came to hate the countryside (the “stinky” rice paddies, the alien jungle) as well.  Racism, fear, and hatred bred atrocity.
  3. Body count: U.S. troops were pushed and rewarded for high body counts. A notorious example was U.S. Army Lieutenant General Julian Ewell.  The commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division, Ewell became known as the “Butcher of the Delta.”  Douglas Kinnard, an American general serving in Vietnam under Ewell, recounted his impressions of him (in “Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor”).  Ewell, recalled Kinnard, “constantly pressed his units to increase their ‘body count’ of enemy soldiers.  This had become a way of measuring the success of a unit since Vietnam was [for the U.S. Army] a war of attrition, not a linear war with an advancing front line.  In the 9th [infantry division] he had required all his commanders to carry 3” x 5” cards with body count tallies for their units by date, by week, and by month.  Woe unto any commander who did not have a consistently high count.”

The Burns/Novick series covers General Ewell’s “Speedy Express” operation, in which U.S. forces claimed a kill ratio of 45:1 (45 Vietnamese enemy killed for each U.S. soldier lost).  The series notes that an Army Inspector General investigation of “Speedy Express” concluded that at least 5000 innocent civilians were included as “enemy” in Ewell’s inflated body count—but no punishment was forthcoming.  Indeed, Ewell was promoted.

Ewell was not the only U.S. leader who drove his troops to generate high body counts while punishing those “slackers” who didn’t kill enough of the enemy.  Small wonder Vietnam became a breeding ground for atrocity.

  1. Helicopters.  As one soldier put it, a helicopter gave you a god’s eye view of the battlefield.  It gave you distance from the enemy, enabling easier kills (If farmers are running, they’re VC, it was assumed, so shoot to kill).  Helicopters facilitated a war based on mobility, firepower, and kill ratios, rather than a war based on territorial acquisition and interaction with the people.  In short, U.S. troops were often in and out, flitting about the Vietnamese countryside, isolated from the land and the people—while shooting lots and lots of ammo.
  2. What are we fighting for? For the grunt on the ground, the war made no sense.  Bernard Fall noted that, after talking to many Americans in Vietnam, he hadn’t “found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end – of the ‘war aims’ – and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?”

The lack of clear and defensible war aims, aims that could have served to limit atrocities, is vitally important in understanding the Vietnam war.  Consider the quotations from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that lead this article.  JFK claimed it wasn’t America’s war to win — it was South Vietnam’s.  LBJ claimed he wasn’t going to send U.S. troops to Vietnam to fight; he was going to leave that to Asian boys.  Yet JFK committed America to winning in South Vietnam, and LBJ sent more than half a million U.S. “boys” to wage and win that war.

Alienated as they were from the land and its peoples, U.S. troops were also alienated from their own leaders, who committed them to a war that, according to the proclamations of those same leaders, wasn’t theirs to win.  They were then rewarded for producing high body counts.  And when atrocities followed, massacres such as My Lai, U.S. leaders like Richard Nixon conspired to cover them up.

In short, atrocities were not aberrational.  They were driven by the policy; they were a product of a war fought under false pretenses.  This is not tragedy.  It’s criminal.

Failing to face fully the horrific results of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia is the fatal flaw of the Burns/Novick series.  To that I would add one other major flaw*: the failure to investigate war profiteering by the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower famously warned the American people about as he left office in 1961.  Burns/Novick choose not to discuss which corporations profited from the war, even as they show how the U.S. created a massive “false” economy in Saigon, riven with corruption, crime, and profiteering.

As the U.S. pursued Vietnamization under Nixon, a policy known as “yellowing the bodies” by their French predecessors, the U.S. provided an enormous amount of weaponry to South Vietnam, including tanks, artillery pieces, APCs, and aircraft.  Yet, as the series notes in passing, ARVN (the South Vietnamese army) didn’t have enough bullets and artillery shells to use their American-provided weaponry effectively, nor could they fly many of the planes provided by U.S. aid.  Who profited from all these weapons deals? Burns/Novick remain silent on this question—and silent on the issue of war profiteering and the business side of war.

The Vietnam War, as Tim O’Brien notes in the series, was “senseless, purposeless, and without direction.”  U.S. troops fought and died to take hills that were then quickly abandoned.  They died in a war that JKF, Johnson, and Nixon admitted couldn’t be won.  They were the losers, but they weren’t the biggest ones.  Consider the words of North Vietnamese soldier, Bao Ninh, who says in the series that the real tragedy of the war was that the Vietnamese people killed each other.  American intervention aggravated a brutal struggle for independence, one that could have been resolved way back in the 1950s after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

But U.S. leaders chose to intervene, raining destruction on Southeast Asia for another twenty years, leading to a murderous death toll of at least three million.  That was and is something more than a tragedy.

*A Note: Another failing of the Burns/Novick series is the lack of critical examination about why the war was fought and for what reasons, i.e. the series takes at face value the Cold War dynamic of falling dominoes, containment, and the like.  It doesn’t examine radical critiques, such as Noam Chomsky’s point that the U.S. did achieve its aims in the war, which was the prevention of Vietnamese socialism/communism emerging as a viable and independent model for economic development in the 1950s and 1960s.  In other words, a debilitating war that devastated Vietnam delayed by several decades that people’s emergence as an economic rival to the U.S., even as it sent a message to other, smaller, powers that the U.S. would take ruthless action to sustain its economic hegemony across the world.  This line of reasoning demanded a hearing in the series, but it’s contrary to the war-as-tragedy narrative adopted by Burns/Novick.

For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world.  Accurate or not, this critique deserves consideration.