Wednesday, July 20, 2005

General William C. Westmoreland (1914 - 2005)

I heard the news today (Oh boy!) from fellow blogateers Driftglass and Billmon, an article from The Guardian, and finally a nice little obituary from the Times Online. Death appears to be due to "natural causes", polite longhand for "old age". The Times article starts:

Vietnam commander whose big battalions failed to overwhelm the communist enemy

ALTHOUGH he had been retired from the US Army for three years by the time Saigon finally fell to Vietnamese Communist forces in 1975, it was William Westmoreland who oversaw the build-up of forces and shaped the tactics that characterised the battles America fought against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong between 1964 and 1968. Taking over what was known as Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in June 1964, he aimed to fight large-scale set-piece battles against the communists, based largely on his experiences as an infantry commander in the Second World War.

Later his optimistic reports of the way the fighting was going were regarded as having contributed to the public’s deep disillusionment, when it became clear that massive American firepower and air mobility were having little effect on the enemy’s morale or capacity to continue fighting. The famous Tet offensive of January 1968, though it was in fact a military defeat for the North Vietnamese, came as a shock to the American public and did much to alter perception of the war at home.

In retirement from the Army after 1972, Westmoreland roamed the country restlessly, making speeches defending the American role in Vietnam and seeking to vindicate his own as a commander in the field. This effort culminated in his famous and costly libel action against the CBS network, which had criticised his tactics. This Westmoreland saw as a battle for his, and the Army’s, honour.

The last paragraph explains why I won't be shedding any tears for the bastard. Imagine you are an incompetent general in charge of a counter-insurgency war which kills or mutilates about a million people, and displaces a few million more. You survive until it is time to leave your job. Do you:

  1. Retreat into obscurity, with the option of a little reflection and soul searching on the side?
  2. Use your fame or notoriety to help the folks you hurt? (There are several possibilities here. Do you form your own charity, or jump on the board of another one? Do you specialize in areas such as land-mine clearing, or do you generalize by providing aid to the Vietnamese people as a whole? The permutations are endless.)
  3. Spend the next 30 years trying to repair your image?

Westmoreland chose option 3, the most tawdry of the three. (To compare, Nixon - a President during the conflict - wisely opted for option 1 for the most part, and Robert S. McNamara - a Secretary of State - went for a variation of option 2 - presidency of the World Bank) For example, in 1985, he served up the following horseshit:

The silver-haired, jut-jawed officer, who rose through the ranks quickly during World War II and later became superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., contended the United States did not lose the conflict in Southeast Asia.

``We held the line. We stopped the falling of the dominoes,'' he said in 1985 at the 20th anniversary of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade's assignment to Vietnam. ``It's not that we lost the war militarily. The fact is, we as a nation did not make good our commitment to the South Vietnamese.''

This was spoken at a time when there was no more South Việt Nam, a Communist Laos, and Vietnamese troops were also in Cambodia, trying to destroy the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Of course America lost. Would a victorious power need to evacuate its embassies in a hurry? Such as those in Phnom Penh and Sài Gòn? (The answer is "no", for those who are still finding it hard to answer this question.)

He didn't stop the falling of the dominoes either. The people who did were people like Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, and Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX of Thailand. Honourable mention goes to the British who did what Westmoreland could not - win a successful counterinsurgency war in Malaysia. Dishonorable mention goes to General Suharto of Indonesia, who stabilized that domino all right - at the cost of about a million dead.

Well, it is too late for Westmoreland to realize it. I doubt he would have understood if he lived on to the next ice age. A lot of people ossify in their thinking as they get older, and this general never seemed to be that open to fresh ideas in the first place. Leaving this aside, there are also psychological defense reactions at work. Imagine you start questioning - really questioning - what bad things you've done. There's the danger of waking up one night with the realization you've got the blood of millions on your hands. Most people couldn't take this, and Westmoreland - who saw himself and his army as honourable - would be even more aghast at the cognitive dissonance involved. 

It looks like there's not going to be any more Self-Deception Whistlestop Tours for this old general. He's dead.