A Soldier Reports
Soldiers in Revolt: The American Military Today
There is an old army saying that an officer should never be seen pushing a baby carriage, carrying a large bundle under his arm, or holding an umbrella. William Westmoreland recalled this adage during a rainstorm on Guam in the spring of 1967 when he was amused to see a fellow general, from the air force, holding an umbrella over Lyndon Johnson’s head as the president addressed a crowd of airmen. It is impossible to conceive of Westmoreland doing any of those things, or presenting himself in any pose except the most dignified, the most commanding.
A caption under a photo in his book notes “the author in a favorite stance atop a jeep.” His hands are on his hips, his right hand resting on his leather holster. The caption says he is “talking” to the men; but the word that springs to mind when one observes the thrust-out chin, the bushy black eyebrows, the grim, resolute expression is “exhorting.” Simple words always seem to stand a little taller with Westmoreland. In his vocabulary a man is not “tough” or “loyal.” He is “staunch” or “stalwart.”
Appearance is a serious business with him. One of his toughest decisions, during the years when he was the army chief of staff, was determining the length of GIs’ hair. This caused him “anguish,” he tells us.
Perfectly turned-out soldiers abounded in Vietnam when I was there—you saw them especially around Westmoreland’s headquarters. Yet even there Westmoreland was special, a little starchier, a bit more polished, he had more “military bearing.” He was always at briefings—either giving them or listening to them. There, in front of huge maps and charts, he was in his element—jabbing at unit position markers, raising his fists like a boxer to show that there were both offensive and defensive sides to the war. People who saw him regularly—other soldiers, diplomats, journalists—remembered the way he looked rather than what he’d said at those briefings. They were struck by the perfection of his appearance in much the way one is struck by the beauty of a woman.
Westmoreland believes that the military is a special calling—perhaps a higher calling. A general is a very special person, and people should be made aware of this. Immaculate appearance is one way of underscoring the dignity of rank. There are other ways as well. Once, after a tennis game at the Cercle Sportif in Saigon, he directed his partner, a young foreign service officer who spoke Vietnamese, to assemble the Vietnamese ball boys for him. He wanted them to know who he was, he told them, and he wanted to thank them for their outstanding performance as ball boys. With the urchins lined up in front of him as if on review he spoke slowly and deliberately in his solemn, southern voice, giving the young diplomat time to translate each phrase: “As a token…of my gratitude…I want to give you…these tennis balls …