“You know, it’s too bad. Abrams is very good. He deserves a better war.”
New Yorker correspondent
Lewis Sorley’s “A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and
Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam” is a thought-provoking book
that casts doubt on whether the outcome of the Vietnam War (known here in
Vietnam as the “American War”) was as inevitable as the conventionally-accepted
view suggests. I discovered it by
reading a review in the “Wall Street Journal” that described how the book has
influenced the thinking among military and political strategists for
The book primarily covers the reign of General Creighton W. Abrams’ years as commander of US forces in the allied effort from 1968 to 1972. Abrams took over from the previous commander, William C. Westmoreland, in mid-1968. Westmoreland had been in command since January 1964, presiding over a massive American escalation to pursue his disastrous strategy of “search and destroy.”
Abrams saw the war differently. “The tactics changed within 15 minutes of Abrams’ taking command,” said his deputy, General Fred Weyand.
Abrams believed that a high body count would not lead to a victory. Instead, he emphasized the political nature of the conflict. He saw that military victory in battles was pointless unless territory could be held by a stable government where the people felt safe. Among other things, he de-emphasized large unit actions combing through the jungle to find nothing and re-emphasized small unit actions to protect the population and disrupt enemy logistics and infrastructure. He also gave a great deal of attention to increasing the strength and effectiveness of provincial militias.
By 1972, Sorley argues convincingly that allied forces had gained a large measure of
success under Abrams' leadership. The insurgent “shadow government”
that had held sway over much of the countryside largely had been destroyed or
rendered ineffective. Life returned to
normal in many places, with record agricultural harvests and economic activity. Regular enemy forces had been dealt a series
of setbacks and were on their heels. The
Northern Easter Offensive of 1972 was defeated decisively by South Vietnamese
ground forces supported by
Things fell apart after that. Despite the Nixon Administration’s repeated
assurances that the
Politics aside, “A Better War” contains some powerful leadership
lessons. Among my favorites:
- The Top Leader is Key. “A Better War” shows yet again the
importance of the top leader.
Everything flows from him.
He sets the direction and tone.
He decides on strategic direction and what is important. Only he and he alone can steer the ship
in a new direction. Abrams had a
different philosophy on how to manage the conflict and changed the
direction of the ship immediately.
And he got results. I love
the quote “The tactics changed within 15 minutes of Abrams’ taking
command.” That says it all.
- Other Leaders are Key Too. While the top leader sets direction,
it’s the leaders on the ground that make things happen. A poor leader renders everyone below him
or her ineffective no matter how good top leadership is. The Southern army suffered greatly from
incompetent leadership at the middle and high levels.
- Simple Strategy Guides Action. The most powerful ideas are the simplest
ones. Abrams boiled his strategy
down to a few simple ideas – “Protect the population” and “an ounce of
prevention is worth a pound of cure” [referring to cutting the “logistics
nose” of the enemy]. These simple
ideas provided clarity and guided action.
- Repeat Repeat Repeat. Leaders set the direction, but one word
or one meeting is rarely enough to get others sharing your vision and moving
with you. Abrams never missed an
opportunity to repeat his message.
- Straight Talk. Abrams insisted that his staff deliver all news in a straight manner – the complete truth and no sugar-coating or downplaying of bad news. This allowed him a clear-eyed view of the situation, vital to making proper decisions.
I'd like to learn more about the leadership and viewpoints of the Northern side of the conflict.