Wednesday, July 20, 2005

William Westmoreland (1914–2005)

General William Westmoreland is dead. He was a “can do” soldier who demonstrated great courage and skill in World War II, a D-Day veteran whose troops took and held a key bridge into Germany, a key victory in that war. As commander of US forces in Vietnam, his instincts and determination led him and America to disaster. For me as a young man with anti-war sentiments and facing the draft, he was "General Waste More Land,” the commander whose search and destroy tactics personified everything that was wrong about the Vietnam War. Four decades later, I see that the personal attacks on General Westmoreland were unkind. I also see how terribly wrong he was. And I see that America has not learned the lesson of this disastrous foreign intervention.

I recall hearing something of General Westmoreland’s WWII heroism during the Vietnam war but it did not really register or mean too much to me at the time. What was far more important then were his calls for military escalation–more troops, more bombing, more destruction–an his attacks on anti-war critics. Then, as now, the politics were everything in a zero-sum game. General Westmoreland was among the architects of American policy in Vietnam, a legitimate target for criticism, parody and ridicule. He saw himself as just a military man who was never given the troops he needed to do the job. He firmly believed that more troops, more bombing would stop a highly motivated indigenous insurgency in a nation with a long history of resisting and defeating outside enemies. Events showed how wrong he and the rest of “the best and the brightest” were about Vietnam.

After the war, General Westmoreland continued to preach his gospel that the US could have defeated the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. He was a regular speaker at local Vietnam memorial dedications, rightly praising the troops he led but still blind to his errors. He passes into history believing that US intervention prevented further Communist success in southeast Asia and that Vietnam is a defeated nation. As in the past, General Westmoreland fails to understand Vietnam and its people. Vietnam has problems: an aging, unresponsive leadership, the lingering impact of the vast destruction wrought upon the landscape by the American military and years of post-war isolation and American sanctions. But Vietnam also has an energetic population and is building a modern economy; it may be a poor nation but the determination that survived and won the war is a valuable resource that has wrought economic and social change in the past three decades. Vietnam is far from the basket case that General Westmoreland sees.

However benighted his views then and now, I regret the personal attacks. He was a soldier doing the job as he knew how to do it. When he advocated policy, he did so because that was his duty as a senior commander. As a veteran of WWII, he had the confidence of one who has overcome long odds. For him, Vietnam was just another difficult job. He was not evil. He was, however, terribly wrong, a commander who misunderstood his opponent and lost at great cost to America and Vietnam.

As I think about him today, I can also see him as a brother in arms. He knew combat. He asked me to do nothing more than he had done himself. During the Vietnam era I never thought of William Westmoreland as a grunt: he was “a general” far removed from the destruction he commanded. Before that, he was in combat and, like me, earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge. More and more I am coming to see combat as a terrible wisdom born of fear, determination and survival. But it’s not a wisdom that leads in one direction. William Westmoreland saw only the need and duty to fight. I see the need and duty to look for alternatives to war.

General Westmoreland’s death is a timely reminder of the limits of American military power. He commanded one of the most powerful armies in history yet could not defeat an army that hid its supplies under rocks in the jungle. Neither he nor many Americans will ever admit that Vietnam was a futile, pointless war. This collective failure is evident than Iraq where the US attempts to create a regime by military force in a region it does not understand while failing to clearly demonstrate the need for continued sacrifice of America’s sons and daughters. Iraq is not Vietnam but the war is the same.

Pace vobiscum, William Westmoreland. I salute your service to this nation even as I remember your mistakes.