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The Best Wars of Their Lives | The Nation

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The Best Wars of Their Lives

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Conservatives, in their season of failed mourning for the myth of American omnipotence, can't get enough of this historian. There is another: Lewis Sorley, a third-generation graduate of West Point and former CIA official whose 1999 book A Better War, which covers the years from 1968 to 1975, has been re-released in paperback after its arguments about Vietnam ended up contributing to military doctrine in Iraq.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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Sorley's plot is even simpler than Moyar's: Everything was going atrociously in Vietnam until a new general, Creighton Abrams, became the new commander in June 1968, with a nifty new way of war. And by 1970, Sorley proclaims, "the war was won." Westmoreland, the previous commander of US forces, had defined victory via attrition: "to inflict on the enemy more casualties than they could tolerate, thereby forcing them to abandon the effort to subjugate South Vietnam." What came to be known as Abrams's "strategic somersault" was aimed at creating an atmosphere of security for Vietnamese civilians, winning their hearts and minds. Westmoreland's addiction to reckless search-and-destroy missions was replaced with a "one war" approach integrating "military and civilian approaches to an unprecedented degree."

It was also, Sorley asserts, a more humane approach to the war. "Compassion for the Vietnamese was something Abrams felt strongly and could express eloquently," he insists. The doctrine was known as "clear and hold," and Sorley's account of it allegedly inspired the November 30, 2005, White House document "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" and its doctrine of "clear, hold, and build"--which, in turn, is the foundation for the Republican argument that nothing that happened before the installation of General Petraeus should count in evaluating our adventure in Iraq.

Sorley's claim that the war effort became more successful because it became more sensitive is so surpassingly strange he can't sustain it. Here he is approvingly quoting an American military briefer on the air assaults launched by the United States to check North Vietnam's massive 1972 Easter Offensive: "If ther're any lights burning in Hanoi tonight, they'll be candlepower." He boasts that this particular aerial campaign "ruined North Vietnam's economy, paralyzed its transportation system" and "reduced imports by 80 percent." He describes Col. George Patton, son of the great general, as one of the commanders who "took seriously Abrams' message" of winning hearts and minds. And yet this was an officer, as Seymour Hersh reported in the book My Lai 4, who sent out a Christmas card in 1968 in which the message "From Colonel and Mrs. Patton II--Peace on Earth" accompanied a color photograph of a stack of corpses, and who was famous for saying, "I do like to see arms and legs fly."

In December 2005 in the Boston Globe, Hanoi-based journalist Matthew Steinglass interviewed experts in an outstanding position to evaluate Sorley's claims about "clear and hold." Steinglass talked to David Elliot, who interviewed 400 Vietcong defectors during the Vietnam War for the Rand Corporation (and later wrote The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975). Elliot found Sorley's claims absurd: "Only the 'clear' part was a success." What was the "clear" part? "Indiscriminate bombing and artillery shelling which led to rural depopulation"--with some villages hit by more than 300 mortar shells a day. Another one of Steinglass's interviewees was the chief Communist strategist, Gen. Le Ngoc Hien, who has been openly critical of the Communist side's mistakes. He finds Sorley's claim that the war effort became more successful because it became more sensitive "completely wrong."

Sorley is not much of a historian. He did not base his arguments on a canvass of a representative sample of relevant sources but instead on hundreds of hours of tape recordings of his hero General Abrams's weekly staff sessions. And the number of outright mistakes and misconceptions in the book is staggering. He offers the rise of South Vietnam's 4 million-strong People's Self-Defense Forces as prima facie "evidence of both the loyalty of the population and President Thieu's confidence in their support"; you wouldn't know from A Better War that this corps was forcibly conscripted. He holds up the 1970 Senate repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as evidence of a liberal stab in the back. He is unaware, apparently, that Nixon had engineered that vote, the better to prove his point that he didn't need Congress's permission to make war. Sorley cites Melvin Laird as a contemporary authority about goings-on in Washington, unacquainted, apparently, with the fundamental fact that during his tenure as Nixon's Defense Secretary, Laird was utterly out of the loop. Sorley's Lyndon Johnson is not mercurial, and his Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are not liars. He thinks "the first Watergate revelations came to light" in April 1973, par for the course for a book so bereft of political context it doesn't even discuss the 1972 opening to China, let alone the way it fundamentally shattered the supposed strategic rationale for the war.

Here is a book that is massively, consistently untrustworthy. And yet in The Weekly Standard, Mackubin Thomas Owens revisited Sorley's "remarkable" and "persuasive" A Better War on the occasion of Sorley's 2004 publication of a 917-page compendium of the transcripts of Abrams's weekly briefings, finding his debunking of "conventional wisdom about Vietnam" crucial to proving defeat in Iraq was far from inevitable. (The piece was headlined "Lost Victory.") In 2004, in National Review, that same writer recalled his gratitude to Sorley for providing the "evidence I lacked" in proving his intuition that Vietnam was the right war in the right place at the right time. Then he said that Sorley helps debunk the notion that Iraq "has become unwinnable."

You have met "Mac" Owens before. He was the reviewer, in The Weekly Standard, who called Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken "one of the most important books ever written on the Vietnam war." And here's the remarkable thing: Out of his determination--or desperation--to stay on message, Owens overlooks fundamental contradictions between these two books. Moyar's hero is William Westmoreland. He is a hero because he rejected the idea of flexible, small, counterinsurgency patrols in favor of "using large conventional forces to search for and engage the Communists." Sorley despises Westmoreland. Indeed, A Better War was all but written to drive home this single idea: that using large conventional forces to search for and engage the Communists was what almost lost us the war. Sorley's heroes are heroes because they understand that a key to victory was to monitor and improve the political quality of the South Vietnamese government from top to bottom, the better to abet "their efforts to carry out--carry through--a social revolution." Moyar's Triumph Forsaken was all but written to excoriate such people, whose insistence on monitoring and improving the political quality of the South Vietnamese government almost lost us the war.

Triumph Forsaken and A Better War are matter and antimatter. Yet in an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Why Bush's War Plan Could Work," Owens cites them both within a single paragraph as making fundamentally the same argument. "Military success is a necessary, if not sufficient, cause for defeating an insurgency," he wrote. "This point is illustrated by an objective analysis of the Vietnam War. As Moyar demonstrates in his remarkable new book, 'Triumph Forsaken,' the government of Ngo Dinh Diem had broken the communist insurgency in South Vietnam by 1960 by killing and capturing communist cadres in unprecedented number, leading many survivors to defect to the government's side. And in his book, 'A Better War,' Lewis Sorley shows how the US did the same in the late 1960s and 1970s."

Here is one of conservatism's first-call "experts" on military history. He seems to have brazened out the only job requirement: If a book suggests America can never lose, except when meddling liberals forsake the triumph, then that is an "objective analysis," functionally identical to all other such objective analyses. Denial and bargaining are the order of the day. Does Owens teach this at the Naval War College? Does Moyar at the Marine Corps University? I can only imagine they do. I do know that the former head of Central Command in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, is said to have read and heeded A Better War. Is it any wonder they can't make sense of their loss?

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