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A Better War
The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

By Lewis Sorley
Harcourt Brace. 528 pp. $28

  Chapter One

Chapter One: Inheritance

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When, in January 1964, General William C. Westmoreland was sent out to Vietnam as deputy to General Paul Harkins—and became, a few months later, his successor in command of U.S. forces there—he was chosen from a slate of four candidates presented to President Lyndon Johnson. The others proposed were General Harold K. Johnson, who instead became Army Chief of Staff; General Creighton Abrams, who was assigned as Vice Chief of Staff to Johnson; and General Bruce Palmer, Jr., who replaced Johnson as the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations. The choice of Westmoreland was a fateful one in terms of how the war would be fought. As later events demonstrated conclusively, the other three candidates were of one mind on that matter, all differing radically from Westmoreland's approach.

Beginning in the spring of 1965, Westmoreland repeatedly requested additional troops, the better to prosecute his self-devised strategy of attrition warfare. Simply stated, his intention was to inflict on the enemy more casualties than they could tolerate, thereby forcing them to abandon efforts to subjugate South Vietnam. A key element of this approach was reaching the "crossover point," the point at which allied forces were causing more casualties than the enemy could replace, whether through recruitment and impressment in South Vietnam or infiltration from North Vietnam. At a February 1966 conference with President Lyndon Johnson in Honolulu, Westmoreland had been given an explicit directive to achieve this goal, to demonstrate that he could make good on his chosen strategy of attrition. "Attrit by year's end, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces at a rate as high as their capability to put men in the field," he was told. While Westmoreland eventually claimed to have accomplished that mission, in fact—despite horrendous losses—the enemy buildup continued throughout his tenure, as did Westmoreland's requests for more and more troops to meet what he once called his "relatively modest requirements."

Westmoreland often predicted that the enemy was going to run out of men, but in the event it turned out to be the United States that did so, or at least found it extremely difficult to deploy more forces in the face of reluctance to call up reserve forces and pressures to reduce draft calls. Resistance to calling reserves was a constant during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, a stance apparently dictated by unwillingness to have the war affect the lives of millions of ordinary citizens and families affiliated with the reserves. Ironically, that impact fell instead on those who were drafted or volunteered for service. Meanwhile, failure to call up reserve forces had an adverse impact on all the services, and especially the Army, since all contingency plans for deployments of any magnitude had included at least partial reliance on mobilized reserves.

Types of units found primarily in the reserve components and needed in Vietnam now had to be created from scratch, while the existing units and seasoned leaders in the reserves remained unavailable. Instead the expansion of forces consisted, as Creighton Abrams once observed, "entirely of privates and second lieutenants," resulting in progressive decline of experience and maturity of the force, particularly at junior levels of leadership. This in turn seems directly related to later problems of indiscipline in the services.

It is significant that, even before Tet 1968, the administration had declined to add more troops, rejecting Westmoreland's request of the previous year for another increment of 200,000. In part this may have reflected declining political will and the effects of a growing antiwar sentiment, but widespread realization—even among those who supported the war—that Westmoreland's approach was not achieving significant results also spawned unwillingness simply to escalate the level of confrontation with no assurance that anything would be gained in the process.

Losses imposed on the enemy had been inflicted through concentration on what was often referred to as the "war of the big battalions," an operational approach emphasizing multibattalion, and sometimes even multidivision, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to find the enemy and force him to stand and fight. These "search-and-destroy" operations were costly in terms of time, effort, and matériel, but often disappointing in terms of results. The reality was that the enemy could avoid combat when he chose; accept it when and where he found it advantageous to do so; and break contact at will as a means of controlling casualties. He was aided in this by the use of sanctuaries in adjacent Laos and Cambodia, off limits to allied forces because of political restraints. His principal logistical support route, nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, also branched out into South Vietnam from main arteries spiking down through those adjoining countries.

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge reflected some of the frustration this situation induced in a June 1966 cable to Lyndon Johnson. "The best estimate is that 20,000 men of the Army of North Vietnam have come into South Vietnam since January," he wrote, "and as far as I can learn, we can't find them."

Other costs derived from the single-minded concentration on the Main Force war—notably neglect of the advisory task and of the need to improve South Vietnam's armed forces, and equally neglect of the crucial pacification program, thereby leaving largely undisturbed the enemy's shadow government, its infrastructure within the villages and hamlets of rural South Vietnam. "Westmoreland's interest always lay in the big-unit war," said his senior intelligence officer, Lieutenant General Phillip B. Davidson. "Pacification bored him." And, in his enthusiasm for taking over the Main Force war, Westmoreland in effect pushed the South Vietnamese out of the way, thus also abdicating his assigned role as the senior advisor to those forces and essentially stunting their development for a crucial four years.

At the end of 1966, the Pentagon Papers authors later observed, "the mood was one of cautious optimism, buoyed by hopes that 1967 would prove to be the decisive year in Vietnam." In an interview published in Life magazine, Westmoreland went further. "We're going to out-guerrilla the guerrilla and out-ambush the ambush," he asserted. "And we're going to learn better than he ever did because we're smarter, we have greater mobility and firepower, we have more endurance and more to fight for.... And we've got more guts." This was ominous, for Westmoreland had by then been in Vietnam for nearly three years. Indeed, the previous year he had told the President that the war would be over by the summer of 1967.

In February 1967 General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made one of his periodic visits to South Vietnam, afterward reporting to the President that "the adverse military tide has been reversed, and General Westmoreland now has the initiative. The enemy can no longer hope to win the war in South Vietnam," he added. "We can win the war if we apply pressure upon the enemy relentlessly in the North and in the South." . . . .

© Copyright 1999 Lewis Sorley

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