In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. – Laurence J. Peter in The Peter Principle, 1969.
If there is a theme to this biography of General William C. Westmorland, the epigraph to this review is it. It should the epitaph for General Westmoreland, the incompetent “architect” of possibly the worst sustained military disaster in American history.
Sorley has written a very detailed and solid biography of Westmorland and his role in the debacle that was the Vietnam War. From the time he became a general and then took over the war, it is clear from this biography that he simply wasn’t very smart, was self-delusional, hid from the truth if not outright fabricated it, and was generally in way over his head in conceptualizing how to manage the politics and the strategy of the Vietnam War.
While Sorley spends a fair amount of time on Westmorland’s childhood and lifelong military career before Vietnam, as it explains a lot of his personality and how he rose to a position beyond his capacity, most of the biography is rightfully about the war itself. Without going into a blow by blow account of the various aspects of the war Sorley details, he points out several character issues that lead to ultimate failure in Vietnam.
First he makes the case that Westmoreland simply wasn’t that smart. He had a superficial view of the world and his place in it. His main goal in life seemed to be to collected promotions and stars on his epaulette (with the author making a parallel to his obsession with collecting patches as a Boy Scout to be an Eagle Scout). He was a competent commander of smaller units but rising to the rank of general, which requires a big picture view of world and ability to understand how to achieve an end goal, was beyond his intellectual capacity.
Second, and as result of the above, his strategy in the war ultimately became the body count. How many enemy soldiers were killed? He treated the war as a war of attrition of enemy soldiers, even after it became apparent that this strategy was not working and would never work.
Third, while not outright accusing Westmoreland of being a liar, manipulations of the truth, including the body count (as well as in other areas), were rampant. What was reported to superiors in Washington and the American public were false. One almost believes Westmoreland believed his own distorted version of reality, one that he created and was created for him by those trying to please boss.
Fourth, Westmoreland’s disconnection from reality resulted in a flawed policy being sustained over a long period of time, costing American soldiers more lives than was necessary and ultimately ending in defeat. He is depicted as leading from the rear with little knowledge or understanding of what the common solider in the field was going through and not understanding the enemy.
Westmoreland was a man with a huge ego who didn’t want to admit his strategy was flawed so instead created a fiction that suited his own view of reality and fed that to a careless Johnson Administration that failed in its duty of oversight and the American public.
It was sad reading this biography realizing what Westmoreland cost Americans and those serving under him.
As an aside to this review it was interesting that I read two books around the same time that I read this. One was Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In Blink, Gladwell has a section discussing as study showing that CEOs of major corporations are mainly tall, white men. Essentially, they look the part. Quoting from Blink: “Have you ever wondered why so many mediocre people find their way into positions of authority in companies and organizations? It’s because when it comes to the most important positions, our section decisions are a good deal less rational than we think. We see a tall person and we swoon.” His quintessential example is President Warren G. Harding. He was possibly the worst president in American history, was not very smart, and was corrupt. But he was tall, good looking, and acted the part of what we think a President should look like. Westmoreland is also described as tall, good looking, had a big ego that projected self-confidence. He looked and acted the part of what we think a military leader should look like. Reading this section of Blink (see Chapter Three) made me feel I was reading about General Westmoreland.
The other book I read about the same time was Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Matterhorn is a fictional account of Marlantes’ experience in the Vietnam War. Early in the novel we get a tragi-comic example of how the enemy body count was exaggerated on the ground to the please the higher ups. It also reminds one what an awful aspect war is, the lives lost, and worst of all how incompetent leadership lead to more deaths and more misery on both sides of the conflict. American soldiers deserved better.
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