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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent look at a wrong leader at the wrong time, September 11, 2011
This review is from: Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam (Hardcover)
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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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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 10, 2011 5:37:03 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 10, 2011 8:32:57 PM PDT
Arnold betrayed, or at least tried to betray, West Point to the British. While his invasion of Canada was not successful, this "defeat" was neither his fault, nor was it really held against him. His problem was he thought that he had been slighted and that lesser men had been advanced over him. While Arnold was right on both counts, it does not explain much less excuse his later treachery. As a general, it was not his relatively few defeats that historians hold against him, rather it was his signal lack of character.

As someone that served in Viet Nam and later studied it carefully I held views that were remarkably similar to yours. However, of late I find myself giving General Westmorland more credit. So I will read the book and see. Thank you for the review.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 10, 2011 6:16:45 PM PDT
Right...actually, it was Arnold's betrayal that I meant, and by 'defeat' I meant his West Point scheme was exposed before its success. As a military leader, I believe he was reasonably effective - for both sides.

Posted on Feb 7, 2012 11:24:26 AM PST
It's hard to fight a war when politics restrains you from taking the war to your adversary.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2012 3:29:52 PM PST
Made even more difficult when the top commander is out of his depth.
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Nathan Webster
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