43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Excellent look at a wrong leader at the wrong time
, September 11, 2011
This review is from: Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam (Hardcover)
This is an excellent, close look at one of the most failed Generals in the history of the US military. At least Benedict Arnold was defeated before he did much damage.
The tragedy of Westmoreland is best introduced by author Lewis Sorley in Westmoreland's role as First Captain of his 1936 West Point class. As the top student leader, he participated in the shunning - as in, nobody spoke to him on personal level for four years - of black classmate Benjamin O. Davis, later a Tuskeege Airman, and an Air Force general himself. Westmoreland excuses himself in decades-later letters to friends, explaining that it was "the times," and that Davis had to expect the treatment he got.
It's true, in 1936, Davis probably did expect it, and he got it. And it really wasn't up to 22-year-old Westmoreland to change race relations in the country.
But, the point is he didn't even try. He was not prepared to think outside the box, or at any other level than what he had been trained to believe as an upper-crust South Carolinian. He was not going to challenge the conventional wisdom of race relations in 1936 (and it's more likely than not that he agreed with it anyway). So if his role as First Captain froze out one of his own classmates, that was simply the way the world worked.
When he arrived in Vietnam - by all of Sorley's accounts a seasoned, effective division commander and WWII veteran - of course he fell back to the conventional wisdom. Since there was no specific territory to be won or lost, then of course he would fall back to the next best thing: a body count, since it was something he could measure success by. If the Korean War had taught anybody anything, it should have been that the communist forces didn't care how many bodies got stacked up, as long as they could achieve their larger goal. It was a lesson unlearned by leaders like Westmoreland.
Westmoreland was hardly the only one to blame. But when you're the leader on the ground, that's the way it goes. David Petraeus can share credit for Iraq with many people, but he's the face of the success (as of 2011 anyway).
The biography's occasional flaws are very specific information that Sorley clearly included to be comphrehensive, but it sometimes comes at the expense of context - one passage relates Westmoreland before a parachute jump; in a prior conversation with an airborne soldier Westmoreland was jaunty and confident, but when the soldier sees him before a later parachute jump, Westmoreland is nervous and quiet - the implication is that his early confident manner was a put-on. But, really, he was probably a little nervous before the jump, or who knows, maybe he was sick that day. There's no reason to pile on with little, context-free digs like that, when the historical record provides plenty of legitimate and more serious criticizm.
Sorley has provided a harsh biography of a failed leader. It's not unfair, it's well-sourced and researched to the tiniest detail.
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