A Noble Soldier, Not a Great Soldier

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2005

General William Westmoreland, who died earlier this week, was an honorable man and a noble soldier. But unfortunately for the United States and the late Republic of Vietnam, he was not a great soldier. Students of the Vietnam War, including many who served in the conflict, have blamed America’s defeat primarily on Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. While they do bear much of the responsibility for the defeat, Gen. Westmoreland is also culpable. During his time as Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), he implemented an operational approach to the war that was destined to fail.

The Vietnamese communists followed a strategy they called dau tranh (struggle) consisting of two operational elements: dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle) and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle). These operational elements were envisioned as a hammer and anvil or pincers designed to crush the enemy. Armed dau tranh had a strategy "for regular forces" and another for "protracted conflict." Regular-force strategy included both high tech and limited offensive warfare; protracted conflict included both Maoist and neo-revolutionary guerrilla warfare. Political dau tranh included dich van (action among the enemy), binh van (action among the military), and dan van (action among the people).

During his tenure as COMUSMACV, Westmorland focused U.S. attention on armed dau tranh, especially the part of the strategy that relied on regular forces. But he ignored political dau tranh and the "protracted conflict" element of armed dau tranh. Accordingly, he did little to train the Vietnamese army. McNamara concurred, claiming that by the time the Vietnamese were trained, the Americans would have won the war.

Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of the forces of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces in a "war of the big battalions": multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior fire power. The battle of the Ia Drang in November 1965 was an example of Westmoreland’s preferred approach.

The North Vietnamese planned to attack across the Central Highlands and cut South Vietnam in two, hoping to cause the collapse of the Saigon government before massive American combat power could be introduced. Ia Drang was the single bloodiest battle of the war. An under-powered U.S. Army battalion of 450 men landed in the midst of 1600 members of a PAVN regiment. There were two parts to the battle, one successful — the defense of Landing Zone X-Ray — another a debacle — the ambush of a second battalion at Landing Zone Albany — in which 155 Americans died in a 16-hour period, "the most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War."

The battle in the Ia Drang Valley convinced Westmoreland that his concept was correct. In a head-to-head clash, an outnumbered U.S. force had spoiled an enemy operation and sent a major PAVN force reeling back in defeat. For legendary Marine general Victor H. Krulak, a critic of Westmoreland’s approach, Ia Drang represented an example of fighting the enemy’s war — what North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap predicted would be "a protracted war of attrition." As Krulak noted in his book, First to Fight, a "war of attrition it turned out to be… [by] 1972, we had managed to reduce the enemy’s manpower pool by perhaps 25 percent at a cost of over 220,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead. Of these, 59,000 were Americans…," not to mention the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

Westmoreland was critical of the Marine Corps approach in Vietnam, which unlike his own, took counterinsurgency seriously and emphasized small wars. In his memoir, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland writes:

During those early months [1965], I was concerned with the tactical methods that General Walt and the Marines employed. They had established beachheads at Chu Lai and Da Nang and were reluctant to go outside them, not through any lack of courage but through a different conception of how to fight an anti-insurgency war. They were assiduously [sic] combing the countryside within the beachhead, trying to establish firm control in hamlets and villages, and planning to expand the beachhead up and down the coast.

He believed the Marines "should have been trying to find the enemy’s main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population."

Krulak pointed out that the Marines employed an approach in Vietnam — the Combined Action Program — that they had first used in Haiti (1915-34), Nicaragua (1926-33), and Santo Domingo (1916-22). "Marine Corps experience in stabilizing governments and combating guerrilla forces was distilled in lecture form at the Marine Corps Schools… beginning in 1920," Krulak wrote. The lectures appeared in Small Wars Manual in 1940, which was later adopted as an official publication.

According to Krulak, the Marine Corps approach in Vietnam had three elements: emphasis on pacification of the coastal areas in which 80 percent of the people lived; degradation of the ability of the North Vietnamese to fight by cutting off supplies before they left Northern ports of entry; and engagement of PAVN and V.C. main force units on terms favorable to American forces. Westmoreland, according to Krulak, made the "third point the primary undertaking, even while deemphasizing the need for clearly favorable conditions before engaging the enemy."

When Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland as COMUSMACV shortly after the Tet offensive, he adopted a new approach that came close to winning the war. Working closely with Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring, and William Colby, a career CIA officer who coordinated U.S. pacification efforts, the U.S. pursued something similar to the Vietnamese communist dau tranh, a unified strategy.

As Lewis Sorley, Abrams’s biographer, wrote in A Better War, Bunker, Abrams, and Colby "employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. They went about that task with sincerity, intelligence, decency, and absolute professionalism, and in the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace."

For one thing, Abrams adopted an approach akin to that recommended by Krulak, emphasizing not the destruction of enemy forces per se but protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy’s "logistics nose" (as opposed to a "logistics tail"): Since the North Vietnamese lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to pre-position supplies forward of their sanctuaries before launching an offensive. Fighting was still heavy, as exemplified by two major actions in South Vietnam’s Ashau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment’s Operation DEWEY CANYON and the 101st Airborne Division’s epic battle for "Hamburger Hill," but such operations now disrupted PAVN offensive timetables and bought more time for Vietnamization.

In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as General Westmoreland had done, Abrams followed a policy of "one war," integrating all aspects of the struggle against the communists. The result, says Sorley, was "a better war" in which the United States and South Vietnamese essentially achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam’s survival as a viable political entity.

We cannot say with assurance that South Vietnam would have survived. But its chances of survival were much improved by Abram’s approach. One wonders what would have happened had Westmoreland’s tactics not, in Sorley’s words, "squandered four years of public and congressional support for the war."

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.