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William Westmoreland and Douglas Haig

John Simkin

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William Westmoreland died this week. It could be argued that Westmoreland was as bad a general as Sir Douglas Haig. They both believed they could win a war of attrition.

In April, 1964, Westmoreland was made military commander of South Vietnam, in part because of his ostensible knowledge of guerrilla warfare. In this post he played an important role in increasing the number of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.

Westmoreland believed that if he attacked the National Liberation Front with overwhelming force he could win by attrition. This included a massive bombing, artillery and defoliation campaigns. This strategy did result in the Vietnamese suffering heavy losses, an estimated 2 million people, however, it did not break their will. In fact, this strategy only increased the number of people willing to fight the United States Army. As the war journalist, Stanley Karnow pointed out: "Westmoreland did not understand - nor did anyone else understand - that there was not a breaking point. Instead of breaking their morale, they were breaking ours."

In 1965, Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of 'search and destroy'. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'."

Westmoreland was determined to avoid the kind of disaster suffered by the French Army at Dien Bien Phu. He therefore forbade any military operations by units smaller than about 750 men.

In September, 1967, the NLF launched a series of attacks on American garrisons. Westmoreland was delighted. Now at last the National Liberation Front was engaging in open combat. At the end of 1967, Westmoreland was able to report that the NLF had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the NLF would be unable to replace such numbers and that the end of the war was in sight.

Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese paid tribute to dead ancestors. In 1968, unknown to the Americans, the NLF celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. For on the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 members of the NLF launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the US garrisons in September had been to draw out troops from the cities.

The NLF even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the Embassy grounds and kill five US marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon's main radio station. They captured the building and although they only held it for a few hours, the event shocked the self-confidence of the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat and now they were strong enough to take important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another disturbing factor was that even with the large losses of 1967, the NLF could still send 70,000 men into battle.

The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans. However, it illustrated that the NLF appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government.

Westmoreland requested a further 200,000 troops to add to the existing 550,000. President Lyndon B. Johnson refused and in March, 1968, announced he was seeking peace talks with North Vietnam and Westmoreland was sent back to the United States.

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I'd agree that Westmoreland was a horrible general.  But at least he wasn't as determined as Haig to try to prove himself right.

I think he died thinking he had the right strategy for Vietnam.

Maybe that is because Westmoreland was not given the same power as Haig. After the First World War, Haig’s biggest critic was David Lloyd George, the man who gave him the men needed to fight a war of attrition (including conscription). Times change. In 1916 Haig could get away with such tactics. By 1968 the public were much more aware of the military strategy being used by its commanders. This resulted in LBJ being forced to replace Westmoreland and to announce peace talks.

The same will happen in Iraq. The American public believed Bush when he suggested it would be fairly easy to remove one ruler and replace it with “democracy”. He is of course wrong about this. The American military commanders in Iraq will find it impossible to develop a strategy that will work. Therefore, they will have to stay until the American public (and media) do what they did in the late 1960s. That is to say, loud and clear, enough is enough, withdraw the troops from Iraq.

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