In his often-cited but little-read On War (1832), Carl von Clausewitz observes that “in war, the result is never final.” His observation can be applied to the historiography of war as well. A case in point is this study by Gregory Daddis, an Army colonel who earned a doctorate at Chapel Hill, served in the Iraq war, and now teaches at West Point. Westmoreland’s War is the latest salvo in a battle over Vietnam that goes back many years.
Since 1975, interpretations of the Vietnam war have come in waves. The first wave of the narrative held that the United States could never have won, given the nature of the war and the commitment of the Vietnamese Communists. Over the past 20 years, however, a number of observers have called this narrative into question. A second wave argued that our defeat could be traced to a flawed national strategy, which they blame mostly on civilian policymakers, especially Robert McNamara. But a third wave has indicted the military itself for the failure, blaming the U.S. military leadership in Vietnam, especially General William Westmoreland, for adopting a defective operational strategy.
Early representatives of this narrative include works by David Palmer, Andrew Krepinevich, and Stanley Karnow. More recently, studies by John Nagl, Thomas Ricks, and Max Boot have echoed the charge. But the most influential critic of Westmoreland’s conduct of the war has been Lewis Sorley, the author of Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam (2011). Sorley, a career Army officer who served in Vietnam and earned a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins, first laid out his fundamental argument in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999) and refined it in Westmoreland. According to Sorley, Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam in a “war of the big battalions”—multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior firepower. According to Sorley, such search-and-destroy operations were mostly unsuccessful since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous to accept. They were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and to the Vietnamese civilians in the area.
Sorley contends that when General Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland, shortly after the 1968 Tet Offensive, he adopted a new approach that came close to winning the war. Working closely with Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring, and the CIA’s William Colby, who coordinated pacification efforts, Abrams pursued something like a unified “one war” approach. According to Sorley, Bunker and Abrams and Colby “employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. . . . [I]n the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable [South Vietnamese] nation and a lasting peace.” For Sorley, Westmoreland represented the triumph of style over substance, and the best he can say of the general is that he was a prisoner of his own experience who lacked the flexibility to move beyond the things that he knew.
Although Daddis mentions Lewis Sorley infrequently, Westmoreland’s War is clearly intended as a response to Westmoreland. But while Daddis is correct to accuse many of Westmoreland’s critics of recycling flawed circular arguments, he cannot with any justice make this charge against Sorley, whose books on both Abrams and Westmoreland are as well researched as Daddis’s. In addition, while Daddis relies on the written record, Sorley’s work emphasizes interviews, which provide the context often missing even from official reports.
Nonetheless, Daddis offers a fair, if not altogether convincing, defense of William Westmoreland. He contends that Westmoreland was not the “unthinking officer portrayed so contemptuously” in so many histories of the war and that he did, indeed, develop “a comprehensive military strategy for Vietnam, one not confined to simple attrition of enemy forces.” That said, it is also the case that the major pacification program in Vietnam, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, was imposed on Westmoreland’s command by Lyndon Johnson in 1967 because Johnson believed that nation-building was not receiving enough attention.
Daddis bases his defense of Westmoreland on the answers to three questions: Was his approach to strategic planning consistent with the Johnson administration’s grand strategy? Was there a logical relationship between the military means available to Westmoreland and the goals that his command was expected to achieve? And was Westmoreland’s strategic concept not only logical but also realistic? In other words, what was the probability of success?
Given the length and cost of the war, this last question is critical. Daddis’s conclusion is that “Westmoreland, and the organization that he led, not only learned and adapted in Vietnam but also developed a comprehensive strategy best suited for the multifaceted environment in which the U.S. Army was operating.” He depicts enough of that strategy to illustrate that it was more comprehensive than many of Westmoreland’s critics believe, although readers will have to draw their own conclusions about whether it was “best suited” to the situation.
Daddis also contends that Westmoreland did the best he could, given the lack of strategic direction from Washington. In addition, his situation was exacerbated by the fact that he was really only a sub-theater commander, falling under the direction of Pacific Command. Accordingly, Westmoreland did not control many of the assets—especially air and naval—that were brought to bear in Vietnam. Even within Vietnam, his control was limited: In many respects, the Marines in I Corps operated independently and according to their own doctrine, and the South Vietnamese armed forces were never fully integrated into the war effort. It is safe to say that Vietnam was never really Westmoreland’s war, and therefore it was not his to lose. There is plenty of blame to go around.
So Daddis’s valiant effort to absolve Westmoreland of blame for losing the war is commendable, but not altogether successful. It is true, as Hanson Baldwin observed, that Westmoreland had “more responsibility and less authority than any other [theater commander] in our history.” But it seems to this reviewer that Daddis actually acknowledges many of Sorley’s criticisms of Westmoreland while letting him off the hook by stressing mitigating factors.
For instance, the most common charge leveled against Westmoreland is that he conducted a war of attrition at the expense of the “other war,” or pacification. He certainly claimed to be responding to Washington’s demand for progress on the pacification front by way of numerous monthly reports, and Daddis cites many unit after-action reports that indicate that Army units were paying attention to “the other war.” But such reports, as well as what Westmoreland was saying to Washington, merely indicate what his command and its subordinate units planned to do, or what they thought higher headquarters wanted to hear, rather than what they were actually doing. Westmoreland may have wished to conduct a more multifaceted war, but in the end, the historical evidence suggests that, just as his critics claim, he emphasized attrition.
Daddis also ignores Westmoreland’s own words regarding both attrition and “small wars.” On the one hand, Westmoreland wrote a paean to attrition for a “lessons learned” book in 1977: Vietnam, he argued, was indeed “a war of attrition.”
Since the battles of the Somme and Verdun, that has been a strategy in disrepute, one that to many, appeared particularly unsuited for a war in Asia with Asia’s legendary hordes of manpower. Yet if one carefully re-examines the strategy of attrition in World War I, one must admit that, for all the horrendous cost, it eventually worked.
On the other hand, Westmoreland had made clear his antipathy to the counterinsurgency theories in vogue during the Kennedy administration, criticizing “the obsession that President Kennedy and [Army Chief of Staff] General [Maxwell] Taylor had with our ability to fight small wars and to counter Khrushchev’s strategy involving ‘wars of national liberation.’ ” It does seem that Westmoreland was predisposed to fight exactly the kind of war his critics accuse him of fighting: a war of attrition.
One of Westmoreland’s critics was Marine Lt. General Victor Krulak, commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific during Westmoreland’s tenure (1964-68). In his book First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (1984), Krulak argued that a successful effort in Vietnam would have required three elements: pacification of the coastal areas in which 80 percent of the people lived; degradation of the ability of the North Vietnamese to fight by cutting off their supplies before they left northern ports of entry; and engagement of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong main force units on terms favorable to American forces. According to Krulak, Westmoreland made the “third point the primary undertaking, even while deemphasizing the need for clearly favorable conditions before engaging the enemy.”
For his part, Westmoreland was critical of the Marine approach, which (unlike his own) took counterinsurgency seriously and emphasized small wars. In his memoir, A Soldier Reports (1976), Westmoreland argued that rather than “trying to establish firm control in hamlets and villages, and planning to expand the beachhead up and down the coast,” the Marines “should have been trying to find the enemy’s main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population.”
Daddis’s defense of Westmoreland would also have been strengthened by noting that the realities of the Cold War limited what Westmoreland could do. The greatest concern of American policymakers was to ensure that a conflict did not spin out of control, escalating to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. This was what the various theories of “limited war” were designed to address and what constrained some of the steps that Westmoreland could take against North Vietnamese sanctuaries.
Unfortunately, the American emphasis on limiting war out of fear of escalation permitted the North Vietnamese to gain the strategic initiative—and maintain it until after Tet. According to the late Douglas Pike, the Communists followed a strategy they called dau tranh (struggle) consisting of two operational elements: dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle) and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle). These operational elements were envisioned as a hammer and anvil, or pincers, designed to crush the enemy. Armed dau tranh included a strategy “for regular forces” and another for “protracted conflict.” Regular force strategy included both high-tech and limited-offensive warfare; protracted conflict included both Maoist and neo-revolutionary guerrilla warfare. Political dau tranh included dich van (action among the enemy), binh van (action among the military), and dan van (action among the people).
For the North Vietnamese, the conflict in the South was what has come to be called a “hybrid” war. The North’s strategic thrust, culminating in the battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, was part of armed dau tranh regular force strategy, as was the Tet Offensive of 1968, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and the final push in the spring of 1975. But in 1967—after Ia Drang and until the buildup for Tet—armed dau tranh followed a protracted war rather than regular force strategy. Yet Westmoreland’s war of attrition continued even as the North Vietnamese pursued political dau tranh and protracted war dau tranh.
The character of the war did change after Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland in 1968. For one thing, Abrams adopted an approach that emphasized not the destruction of enemy forces per se, but the protection of the South Vietnamese populace by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy’s “logistics nose” (as opposed to a “logistics tail”): Since the North lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to position supplies forward of their sanctuaries before launching an offensive. Fighting was still heavy, as exemplified by major actions in the A Shau Valley during the first half of 1969; but such operations now disrupted the North Vietnamese offensive timetables and improved the security of the coastal areas.
In Westmoreland’s defense, it may be possible to argue that the reason Abrams was able to fight his “better war” was that American and South Vietnamese forces had bloodily crushed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armed dau tranh during Tet. It is also the case that the Nixon administration had decided to draw down involvement in Vietnam, opting for “Vietnamization,” which required a more efficient use of diminishing resources. But Daddis balances the negative portrait that Westmoreland’s critics have painted of his generalship. It is a fact that Westmoreland was severely limited in what he could do to fight the war; it is also the case that the Army and Marines adapted to the realities of the war they were fighting (as they have recently done in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Daddis is correct to point out that the American strategy, “while comprehensively planned and faithfully executed, was not sufficient in itself for securing victory in Vietnam.” One reason for this is what Clausewitz called the “value of the objective.” Ultimately, victory in the war was more important to the Communists than it was to us. Daddis is also correct to observe that “talented American generals can develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy and still lose a war.” But the fact is that there are better and worse generals. While stipulating the truth of the mitigating factors that Daddis brings to bear on Westmoreland’s behalf, I remain persuaded that Sorley is right about both Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams. The latter was indeed the superior general, which raises an interesting question: Would it have made a difference to the outcome of the war if Abrams rather than Westmoreland had been placed in command in 1964?
Mackubin Thomas Owens, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam (1968-69).