Academic journal article Parameters

On Lewis Sorley's Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

Academic journal article Parameters

On Lewis Sorley's Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

Article excerpt

Boston: Houghton

Mifflin Harcourt,


416 pages



Studying the individual commander's role in war has been a staple of military history since Homer's epic the Iliad. Biographies of Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon have long enticed audiences with explorations of how great captains won or lost battles, and thus wars, in near single-handed fashion. Good biographies, of course, must be written with balance in mind. Events, and the environments in which they unfold, shape individuals, influence decisions, and often circumscribe actions. Context matters. Of writing biographies, John Lewis Gaddis observes that "it's a little like riding a unicycle: you need to be aware all the time of a wider horizon, even as you concentrate on the single problematic point at which the rubber meets the road." (1) Gaddis's point is significant for it helps explain the ultimate disappointment with Lewis Sorley's new biography on William C. Westmoreland. In losing sight of the wider horizon, Dr. Sorley has reduced the history of the Vietnam War into a competition over the merits of two individual commanders, one of whom, in his view, won the war, the other who lost it. (2)

Certainly, the purpose of this new biography is well-founded as Sorley argues that until we understand Westmoreland, "we will never understand fully what happened to us in Vietnam, or why." (3) Philosophically, this work is an effort to keep the individual at the center of the Vietnam War, especially during the crucial years of American military escalation from 1964 to 1968. Sorley tells a tragic tale in which one man, fueled by ambition and promoted above his abilities, lost the war in Vietnam and then spent his remaining days absorbed in sad attempts to defend his record while leading the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

While there is much to debate philosophically over the contention that individuals win or lose modern wars, methodological problems eventually derail Sorley from offering a fuller understanding of the Vietnam War. In focusing narrowly on Westmoreland, Sorley omits crucial elements of the conflict's history, especially those at cross-purposes with his thesis that Westmoreland's inability to understand the war had "gravely damaged" American efforts in Southeast Asia. (4) Rather than evaluate the relationships between the political, strategic, and tactical levels--which Colin S. Gray notes are "not so neatly hierarchical"--Sorley instead concentrates on Westmoreland as a failed military commander. (5) At times, this is useful, for the MACV chief played a significant role in the introduction of American ground forces to Vietnam, and, more importantly, in how they were employed against both regular formations of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and irregular forces of the southern National Liberation Front (NLF). Westmoreland's role in shaping an ultimately unsuccessful strategy in Vietnam is worth exploring.

It is thus tempting to view Westmoreland as a tragic figure and early on Sorley establishes his antihero as a paragon of military excellence. The former West Point first captain excelled as a battalion commander in World War II--his field artillerymen nicknamed him "Superman." He later gained wide respect commanding a parachute infantry regiment, while subsequent commendable service in the Pentagon and as commander of the 101st Airborne Division marked Westmoreland as a rising star who found patronage from senior officers like Maxwell Taylor. Assignments as a student at Harvard Business School and as Superintendent of the US Military Academy served to enhance the development of a leader whose "concern for the well-being of his soldiers was genuine and almost without limit." (6) Marriage to Katherine "Kitsy" Van Deusen equally helped "humanize" a formal, if not humorless, general. Westmoreland's professional maturation, therefore, suggested an officer well-suited for higher levels of responsibility. …

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