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Westmoreland's battles: Vietnam and CBS

Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS, by Bob Brewin and Sydney Shaw. New York: Atheneum. 414 pp. $21.95. Forget the clich'es about history repeating itself; but remember that individuals in history often repeat themselves.

Witness Gen. William C. Westmoreland's actions, as narrated in this fair-minded account of his legal counterattack on CBS for the 1982 accusation that he had faked the count of Communist forces in South Vietnam. He chose to ignore warnings and to sue CBS, only to retreat early in 1985 (much as the military had withdrawn from Vietnam), having stumbled for a second time into a no-win situation. Yet again, he and his lieutenants had misread their opponent's strength, the solidity of their own team, and - above all - the deeper historical forces at work.

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For the Vietnam war was an anachronism. Despite its anticommunist hoopla, it was essentially an old-fashioned colonial pacification campaign, but with an entire post-colonial world watching; Westmoreland's memoirs show how little he knew of such things. His legal suit was no less anachronistic, an unrealistic attempt by a Southern gentleman (egged on by vengeful conservatives) to cleanse a reputation besmirched by a war whose hatreds ran too deep for any court to reconcile.

Though Bob Brewin and Sydney Shaw stick too closely to narrative to address these larger questions, they wisely root their story in the war itself (in which Brewin served), with its heartfelt policy controversies, rather than in gossip about personalities, ambitions, and rivalries. This was not true of Don Kowet's ``A Matter of Honor'' (1984), a tendentious book, full of ad hominum aspersions and jabs at the liberal media. That CBS was more interested in headlines than in balance becomes clear, but so are many journalists, Kowet included.

His critique of the media as both powerful and arrogant has recently been amplified in Renata Adler's ``Reckless Disregard'' (1986), which encompasses both the Westmoreland-CBS case and that of Israel's Ariel Sharon with Time, the whole being heightened by Adler's constant attacks on big-time lawyers. Her book, which triggered a backlash at CBS and elsewhere, is less a reasoned investigation than an ingenious polemic, a courtroom overview, in which Adler deploys her intellectual talents to skewer every fool and knave in sight.

Brewin and Shaw treat the participants much more fairly. The key is Sam Adams, the tenacious former CIA analyst who spoke for his colleagues - ``Sam, it makes my blood boil to see the military cooking the books'' - in keeping the dispute alive and making it public. There is George Crile, the CBS producer who got the interviews needed to bring Adams's critique to television. There is Dan Burt, the combative, over-confident lawyer who orchestrated Westmoreland's counterattack - and then his retreat. There are retired generals Joseph McChristian and Daniel Graham, the former a West Pointer who resisted peer pressure to testify against Westmoreland, the latter a prominent conservative activist who defended Westmoreland.

Behind the furor stood the Great Order of Battle Controversy, which the CIA and the military fought during 1967-68, regarding the size and composition of enemy forces in South Vietnam. The military chose a 300,000 figure (and CBS asserted in 1982 that Westmoreland imposed this limit on grumbling intelligence staffs), while the CIA, where Sam Adams was churning out memos, argued for 500,000. The military estimate encouraged hawks by making victory seem quite possible, if Washington had the courage to supply reinforcements and more time; the CIA estimate made it all seem a lost cause.

Westmoreland's disregard for ``the women, children, and old men'' of the village self-defense units - whom the CIA insisted on counting - stemmed in part from the fixation of the American military on classic big battles against the enemy's regulars. Certainly the mines and booby traps of the villagers might kill an occasional soldier, but a few big victories would set things right, no matter what civilian analysts might think. That military morale would decline, that Americans would turn skeptical, and that the analysts and some of his former officers would go to the media was a shock to Westmoreland, for whom hierarchy and deference were all.

America's global entanglements, the fear of surprise attack, and the tantalizing possibilities of the information revolution, all interact to make intelligence estimates a potential quagmire. Court actions and television productions simply muddy the waters, as this book suggests. There is no clear solution: Dispassionate analysis has been sucked into the maw of decisionmaking, and it is analysis that suffers.

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