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A Better War
The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam
By Lewis Sorley
Harcourt Brace. 528 pp. $28

Reviewed by Arnold R. Isaacs, who covered the last three years of the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun. His most recent book is "Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy."

Sunday, August 8, 1999

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Lewis Sorley appears to have given himself two missions in this book. The first, which he largely achieves, is to rescue Gen. Creighton Abrams's reputation from the wreck of Vietnam. The second is to reevaluate the U.S. campaign there as a success, not a failure, even if in the end America's objective was not met.

Here, Sorley is less persuasive. His flat assertion that "the fighting wasn't over, but the war was won" by late 1970 is not just an overstatement but defies logic. A war may be going well but it isn't "won" if the enemy is still fighting, much less if the bloodiest battles are still to come, as Vietnam's were. And it most certainly isn't won if, when the fighting stops, the flag over the battleground -- in this case, the entire country of South Vietnam -- is the enemy's.

Even if his conclusion is absurdly overstated, Sorley assembles a good deal of evidence that the United States fought more intelligently and effectively in the war's later years, due largely to Gen. Abrams's leadership. Abrams, the principal figure in Sorley's narrative, commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from July 1968 to June 1972, roughly the last half of the U.S. campaign. No general in American history ever had a more thankless assignment. When Abrams took command, three and a half years of escalating military effort had failed to reach the American goal of weakening the Vietnamese Communists enough so they couldn't or wouldn't continue their struggle to take over South Vietnam. Abrams was expected to achieve the same goal -- but with a force that was diminishing, not increasing, and with a public at home growing steadily less inclined to spend any more lives or resources on the war at all.

Sorley makes a strong case that Abrams was a better commander than his predecessor, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, whose ill-conceived war of attrition in 1965-68 had, as Sorley writes, "squandered four years of public and congressional support for the war." Scrapping Westmoreland's "search-and-destroy" approach, Abrams adopted a strategy that made protecting people and villages the first priority, instead of flailing about in the countryside trying to hunt down the elusive enemy forces. With this policy change, Sorley contends, Abrams and two key civilian officials -- the CIA's William Colby, who headed the pacification program, and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker -- turned a military failure into a success he insists could have been permanent if U.S. support had been more steadfast.

Things were never as rosy as Sorley claims, but the post-1968 war clearly deserves more attention and a more positive appraisal than most historians have given it. A Better War helps fill the gap. It's a less valuable contribution than it might have been, though, because of the author's partisan approach to the facts.

Sorley, a retired Army officer and former CIA official, uses evidence selectively, to say the least. Seemingly determined to leave no warts on his portrait of Abrams and of American conduct in general, Sorley writes not a word about the coverup of the My Lai massacre. Not a word about the troubling toll of civilian deaths in areas occupied by the 9th Infantry Division, which became a whispered scandal among many officers in the U.S. command. Not a word about the blunders in the 1975 Saigon evacuation that left hundreds of CIA employees and other vulnerable Vietnamese behind to be captured by the Communists.

The point is not that any of these would necessarily contradict Sorley's central argument. They don't. But their omission casts doubt on his approach to his subject. The gaps leave an impression of a writer who has sifted the evidence to support a point of view, plucking out those bits that back up his ideas and ignoring those that don't, instead of facing all the facts and the inevitable ambiguities and trying to reach a balanced, honest assessment of the truth. This is spin, not history.

Sorley's analysis is also flawed by another omission. Focusing on U.S. policies and actions, he pays only glancing attention to the Vietnamese. The character, strategies, strengths and shortcomings of the South Vietnamese side are mentioned only briefly and superficially; about the Communists, Sorley says virtually nothing at all. Seen through his lens, the war is essentially an American event, in which only American choices and actions were decisive and the Vietnamese were just part of the scenery, when they appeared at all.

Consistent with this view, Sorley's analysis makes the decline of U.S. support the one and only cause for South Vietnam's defeat, with no consideration of other factors such as the leadership, skill, nerve, will and endurance of the South Vietnamese and their Communist foes. Gen. Abrams appears to have known better. "Sooner or later, the Vietnamese themselves have got to settle this thing," he told one visitor to his headquarters. "We can only help, and we can only help so much." Abrams, who died before the war ended, also understood that U.S. bombs, equipment and dollars could not assure South Vietnam's survival without Vietnamese leaders who were equal to their task and would truly lead their own fight. "We helped too much," he said on another occasion. "And we wounded the Vietnamese by doing it. We can't run this thing. I'm absolutely convinced of that. They've got to run it."

Sorley quotes those observations with apparent approval but seems not to have understood their meaning, or grasped that Vietnam's fate was never entirely in American hands. If he had, A Better War would be a wiser, more valuable book.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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