The Heroic Leader and the Better War from Vietnam to Afghanistan


For a variety of reasons, Vietnam is in the news again. The 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive is coming up, Ken Burns has a new documentary out, and our re-commitment to Afghanistan has revived comparisons to Vietnam. It is, perhaps, more fundamentally the Vietnam War’s shape-shifting character and bitter ending that keep it alive. Every stage of the so-called War on Terror has involved relitigating Vietnam, as a metaphor, warning, and source of historical lessons. Much attention has been focused on how the United States stumbled into the “quagmire,” but students of America’s experience in the War on Terror have a lot to learn from the Vietnam War’s denouement under Gen. Creighton Abrams, Jr., and what it says about the hopes societies at war invest in their military leadership.

In the late 1990s, the historian Lewis Sorley wrote a book, A Better War, highlighting the progress the U.S. military in Vietnam, under Abrams, made after the Tet Offensive. The “better war” is Sorley’s shorthand for the notion that, first, Abrams transformed the American effort in Vietnam, fighting a better war than the previous commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, and, second, that Abrams was a latter-day Ulysses S. Grant who, disappointed by Washington’s fecklessness, “deserved” a better war. Abrams died in 1974 (the only Army chief of staff to die in office), before the fall of Saigon and before he could write a memoir, so Sorley effectively wrote one for him.

Sorley holds that Abrams’ transformation of Vietnam from Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy, big-unit war of attrition to a clear-and-hold, small-unit war of pacification routed the North Vietnamese, so that the U.S. military effectively had it in the bag by 1972, only to fail to back the South Vietnamese with materiel and airpower in 1975. Sorley’s historiography has some serious problems. More recently, Gregory Daddis has revisited Westmoreland’s role in Vietnam in Westmoreland’s War. Daddis finds a man who was neither the heartless body-counter nor the reluctant counter-insurgent that his detractors suggested. Daddis’ work contributes to a broader re-assessment of counter-insurgency in Vietnam prior to Abrams (and soon, during his command). Contrary to the reigning conventional wisdom, historians have increasingly highlighted the centrality of counter-insurgency to America’s Vietnam strategy from the beginning, even as that strategy was frustrated by political, military, and organizational realities. Westmoreland’s failures, such as they were, were not due to his personality or approach but due to the inherent complexity of the war in which he was engaged and the political and military constraints he faced.

While Sorley reflects on the way the war shifted form under Abrams’ command, he never reflects on the way it might have shifted before Abrams arrived. Abrams’ ability to avoid “the big unit war” and focus on small unit patrols was surely aided by the fact that the North Vietnamese were reluctant to engage in big-unit fighting for quite some time after having been decimated in the Tet Offensive. Sorley is in the awkward position of having written a biography of a victorious general in a war the United States lost. Sorley begins his thirteenth chapter – entitled “Victory” – with the claim that, “there came a time when the war was won. The fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won.”  For Sorley, there is no causal connection between the eventual loss of the war and the actions of the general who led it for the five years leading up to the end.

The problems with Sorley’s book are endemic to writing about Vietnam, and about counter-insurgencies in general. Involving shifting alliances of actors, multiple kinds of political constraints, and hazy relationships between coercion and results, success and failure in counter-insurgencies resist simple explanation and invite revisionism. It’s due to this complexity that serious students of the war can look at the same set of events and come to entirely paradoxical conclusions, such as that the war was unwinnable at any point, or could have been won before 1963, or was effectively won by 1972, or that the U.S. military focused (or even over-focused) on counter-insurgency from the beginning or from Abrams’ tenure, or avoided it like the plague in favor of conventional approaches. Sorley’s narrative fails to a great extent because he neglects to contend with the mind-numbing complexity of the war, putting success and failure on the shoulders of Abrams alone.

This should clue us in to an important lesson about the paradoxical danger of heroic leadership – a danger that haunts our country in the present. As you read his book, it’s striking how badly Sorley wants you to see Abrams as a personality. Every other person in the drama is a cardboard character. But Sorley presents Abrams as a larger-than-life counter-insurgent, a Lawrence of Indochina. His dialogue is colorful and stylized (he is apparently the only soldier in Vietnam who swears), with italics used to give you a sense of Abrams’ cadence. The contrast between the heroic Abrams and the milquetoast ensemble has little to do with the historical Abrams and everything to do with what Sorley needs for his story to make sense.

The man Sorley presents is a mythological archetype: the counter-insurgency guru. Abrams, readers are told, is a study in contrasts from “Westie,” the hapless, careerist, conventionally-minded general trying to win a war of attrition. Abrams is the sophisticated, worldly-wise, earnest counter-insurgent who really gets the war and the people, beloved by his men and the local populace alike. Where Westmoreland was a “corporation executive in uniform”, as Stanley Karnow put it, (complete with a degree from an advanced management course at Harvard Business School), Abrams was the earthy and decorated hero of Patton’s breakthrough at Bastogne and two-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. America was losing in Vietnam because Westmoreland had the wrong strategy, and started winning because Abrams had a better one. The war was lost because Congress didn’t see Abrams’ plans through.

We like to tell ourselves these kinds of myths, complete with a supporting cast of good guys and bad guys and an easy to grasp narrative arch. These myths make thorny, complex wars seem intelligible, and tell us that our failures have primarily been failures of military strategy and approach, solved by fighting “a better war” delivered by the best leaders we can find: Before, America had military and political leaders whose views on the war were too simplistic or whose ideas about societal engineering and nation-building were unrealistic. But now, we have been chastened by the horror of war and the realities on the ground, and have found an appropriately sober, savvy leader. The temptation of this myth is the belief that the sophistication and intelligence of our leadership will necessarily deliver victory.

In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Americans turned to counter-insurgency gurus in whom they invested their hopes for “a better war” and an end to the conflict, in contrast to what is depicted as the uninspired performances of their predecessors (Westmoreland, Casey, and the rotating cast of Afghanistan commanders). Politically, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon needed Abrams, much as Bush needed Petraeus, and Obama needed McChrystal … until he did not and then he needed Petraeus again. The guru promises a fresh start and a new approach, and symbolizes a real commitment to winning the war. And the guru does usually boost flagging morale, help the military adjust to the conflict, apply principles of counter-insurgency and show some results. But we don’t like to talk about how much time a truly successful campaign would require or what often happens next. The guru achieves some meaningful level of success, enough for Washington to declare a victory of sorts and bring the troops home (against the guru’s advice). Defeat ensues, even if we refuse to call it such.

Quite apart from their historical accomplishments, figures like Abrams, Petraeus, and McChrystal play a mythological role that is equally indispensable and dangerous. In each case, Americans want to believe that these dirty, grinding wars in which they have become mired have finally called forth a champion, who will fight a better war and deliver a victory. While this myth can be a valuable tool to mobilize political resources, it can also distract from what fighting these wars really takes: long spans of time and deep wells of commitment. A better set of operational tools is not enough. The right technique is not enoughA gentler approach is not enough. Over the last decade the U.S. national security establishment has had to relearn some hard truths. Improvement in counter-insurgency campaigns is usually incremental and tied to organizational learning and experience over time as much as top-down changes of doctrineElite politics has a more determinative effect than good governance reforms or better tactics. Changing the military leadership is no replacement for actually making the resource commitments or costly political compromises necessary to fight and win a counter-insurgency.

Advocates of counter-insurgency often point to the futility of military-first solutions, only to propose their replacement by a new, better set of what fundamentally remain military-first solutions, which fail to address the long-term political calculations that local and national elites are making. Sorley cannot accept that the “center of gravity” in Vietnam was not the security of the Vietnamese people or the North Vietnamese military infrastructure (as important as these were) but American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese political leadership, over which Abrams had little to no influence.

And this is the irony of the mythological counter-insurgency guru: You might not be able to win a war like Vietnam without a guru like Abrams. But the guru’s personality, vigor and success also make it easier, and more attractive, to cut your losses in a politically acceptable fashion. The United States cannot afford to pretend that gurus will deliver rapid and satisfying victory. Nor can America’s political leaders allow temporary success to distract them from the hard questions they must face about what America can hope to achieve in these wars, and whether the nation is willing to pay the cost.


Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His current research addresses the impact US Army policies in Vietnam had on knowledge production, learning on the ground, and battlefield effectiveness.

Image: Department of Defense

Correction: The article originally stated that Westmoreland had an MBA from Harvard, when in fact he went to a months long advanced management course there.