Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

William Westmoreland, RIP

A lot of what went wrong in Vietnam was not Westmoreland’s fault, but there is one area where his strategy was mistaken, and from which it would seem we are applying the lessons in Iraq. Westmoreland--and the other service chiefs--were fans of the "big unit" search-and-destroy war in the mid-1960s, which is why total troop levels rose to over 500,000 by 1968. All of that time very little was being done to train the Vietnamese army to fight for itself. (McNamara rejected this, saying by the time the Vietnamese were trained, we’d have the war won.) When Gen. Creighton Abrams took over in 1969 and began the drawdown of troops, things went much better because Abrams largely abandoned the search-and-destroy strategy in favor of an "enclave" strategy that emphasized turning over the war to the Vietnamese. (See Lewis Sorley’s fine book, A Better War, for a full account of the Abrams command.)

So when you hear people complain that we don’t have enough troops in Iraq, remember that the opposite complaint was made about Vietnam. From afar it seems our basic strategy in Iraq is the right mixture of Westmoreland and Abrams--protect crucial enclaves, train the Iraqis, and engage in specific search-and-destroy missions (Falluja, etc) when key targets can be identified.

Discussions - 11 Comments

I don’t know if the troop commitment is at just the right level, but I do know that level is never appropriate in the eyes of the Left. If we have 300,000 troops it’s too many. If we have 120,000 it’s too few. Doesn’t matter...they are just looking for something to bitch about. Pathetic excuses for patriots.

American Soldier by Tommy Franks sheds some light on the desicion of troop size. For anyone who has not yet read it, it is a great read if you fully want to understand the preparation that went into the war. A reminder to the lefies on this blog. Tommy Franks was appointed to CENTCOM by Clinton NOT Bush. He also illustrated how it was HIS CALL NOT RUMSFELD’s about troop size. He recounts that when Rumsfeld first discussed the matter with him he suggested a troop size of about 500,000 soldiers. It was after this that Tommy Franks told Rumsfeld that was not a good idea and thereafter Rumsfeld let Franks do all the planning (makes sense being a 4 star general)and just had to submit to Rumsfeld for approval. I might add that Franks does not recount Rumsfeld going against any of Franks recommendations.

I agree with Mike. Gen. Franks’ book is a good read and I was very surprised it was not publicized more by conservatives. I read it when it first came out and wondered after reading it how could anyone blame the Bush admistration for "tricking" us into invading Iraq- for Franks it was never a question of should we invade Iraq but when.

On a slightly different note, does anyone know of any other good books on the Vietnam War? One was mentioned in the post.

Andrew- Years ago, I enjoyed Stanley Karnow’s "Vietnam," and another called "A Bright Shining Lie," although I cannot recall the author of that one.

The best Vietnam novel I’ve read is DelVechio’s "The Thirteenth Valley."

I, too would appreciate some more current titles.

Andrew: See Guenter Lewy’s America in Vetnam. It is the best and most dispassionate work on the war. Debunks a lot of myths and cliches.

Karnow’s Vietnam is well-written and gripping, but conveys in subtle ways the Halberstam-demonology version of the U.S. in Vietnam (Mac Owens wrote a brilliant and scathing review of the book 20 years ago when it came out in the old incarnation of the Claremont Review of Books, but it is probably not available online.) Maybe Mac can weigh in again on Karnow.

The other author Fung is looking for is Neil Sheehan. I’ve not read it, so I can’t comment.

I have read "A bright shining lie". Neil Sheehan is the guy that published the Daniel Ellsberg-leaked "Pentagon Papers", so as you might expect, his view is a little anti-US-Military. The book is basically about John Paul Vann’s involvement in the war, so it’s not a very accurate historical perspective, but a pretty good read. If you treat it like fiction, it won’t tick you off too much. My personal recommendation is "No More VietNam’s", by one Richard Millhouse Nixon.

Not Vietnam, but WWI. I just read Jeff Shaara’s "To the Last Man," (which I thought was terrific.) In it, he mentions General John Pershing’s Pulitzer-winning book about his own experiences. Has anyone read Pershing’s book?

Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll look into them.

Neil Sheehan wrote "Bright Shining Lie" about Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, a US Army officer whom Sheehan had admired when Sheehan was a young NY Times reporter in ’Nam.

Vann portrayed himself to Sheehan & his mates as a bold truth-teller who was sacrificing his career in order to speak his mind about how to win the war, etc. To map it onto Steve’s template, Vann was a critic of the Westmoreland, "big-unit-operations" strategy.

Sheehan later learned that Vann--a fairly interesting & charismatic fellow from a hardscrabble Virginia background who "gave good briefing"--had in fact seen his military career tank not on any principled ground but b/c of various tawdry sexual derelictions he’d been caught in (including diddling the teenage girl--daughter of a fellow soldier--who was babysitter to Vann’s kids at an army post in Kansas). Vann had to leave the army but returned to Nam as a high-ranking civilian trainer/commander of South Vietnamese troops, and was killed in a chopper crash in 1972. There’s an HBO movie based on the book w/ Bill Paxton as Vann.

Feeling disillusioned about both America’s effort in Vietnam and Vann’s seamy life story, Sheehan decided that the latter was somehow the former writ small or the former was somehow the latter writ large (quite a wild stretch either way, I think) and spent years having a protracted nervous breakdown and living in Washington, DC, garretts while obsessively researching Vann’s life in order to "prove" this odd thesis. Thanks to financial and other help from the late Peter Braestrup (an old brother reporter and author of the excellent Tet-coverage history "Big Story" before becoming head of the Wilson Center at the Smithsonian) Sheehan was finally able to finish his quixotic magnum opus.

"BSL" is well-written and a gripping read, but essentially bunkum (whatever you think about Vietnam) from a guy who was using this rather fanciful writing project as a means of doing psychotherapy on himself. The little-seen 1978 Vietnam movie "Go Tell the Spartans" is loosely based on the Vann saga, with Burt Lancaster in the Vann role.

Hal Moore’s "We Were Soldiers" is a Vietnam book worth reading, IMHO.

On WWI, Fung, have you looked at Joseph Persico’s "Elevent Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour"? I think it’s quite recent, published in 2004 IIRC. He uses primary sources to go "up close and personal" with many figures from the war both famous and obscure, and in particular has quite a few personal revelations about General Pershing that I found fascinating.

PJC-Thanks for the info! I’ll look into it.

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