A military historian’s harsh take on the career of the general most associated with America’s most controversial war.
An Eagle Scout, First Captain at the U.S. Military Academy, a combat veteran of World War II and Korea, Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division, Superintendent of West Point and, just before his retirement from the military, he served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. 1965’s Time magazine Man of the Year, he addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1967. Married for more than 50 years, he fathered three children. By almost any measure William C. Westmoreland’s life (1914–2005) and career would be deemed successful. But he’ll be forever defined by his tenure as commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, where his strategy of attrition and his search-and-destroy tactics failed utterly to daunt the enemy and frustrated Americans at home who detected no progress in the war. Under Westmoreland’s leadership, “the light at the end of the tunnel” never dawned. Although Sorley (A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, 1999, etc.) treats every aspect of the general’s life, the bulk of the biography deals with the Vietnam years and the various controversies surrounding Westmoreland’s command: his failure to properly arm and train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, his obsession with body counts, his manipulation of the order of battle, his surprise at the 1968 Tet Offensive. Handsome and humorless, Westmoreland had a penchant for self-promotion, for playing to the press and for disguising stalemate as progress. In these respects, not to mention his successive requests for more troops, he resembles no one in our history more than Union Gen. George B. McClellan, although Westmoreland was, by all accounts, a decent man, more the tool than the antagonist of his civilian superiors. Westmoreland spent the 30 years of his retirement defending his actions in Vietnam, but his reputation never recovered. He authored a tendentious memoir, ran an amateurish and unsuccessful campaign for South Carolina’s governorship and ignominiously settled a weak libel suit against CBS.
The general’s defenders will have their hands full answering Sorley’s blistering indictment.