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Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.
Legal Scholar

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

Business ethics expert; senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government; former General Counsel for General Electric; former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services.)

Petraeus, not Westmoreland

For the modern military, as for all important institutions, the messenger is an important part of the message.

Compare General David Petraeus, perhaps the best known military leader of this decade's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with General William Westmoreland, the best-known general during Vietnam. General Petraeus is the face of the modern military: He has a broad education (West Point B.S. and MPA/Phd from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School), is well spoken (handles Congressional hearings with aplomb), broad-gauged (balance between traditional military concerns and understanding of different cultural environments), nuanced in approach (recognizes complexities -- and limitations -- of courses of action) and yet decisive (willing to forge new strategies, the Iraq surge, and take the heat).

At a minimum, General Westmoreland didn't seem to have these qualities and appeared to be a more classic command-and-control general concerned about the cold statistics of war. (He was also less successful.)

Compare the media treatment of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan with the coverage of the grunts in Vietnam. Starting with the embedding of reporters in the Iraq campaign in 2003, the media has given a very human and complex view of the men and women on the front lines. Depictions of their extraordinary sacrifices on and off the fields of battle; their human problems (of families, of injuries, of post-war stress); their patriotism and belief in their cause have all made the soldiers into real people, real neighbors and real fellow citizens, with remarkable qualities and with very human (at times tragic) problems.

Again, in Vietnam, the mainstream reporting was more limited, the soldiers (poor and black) more remote, until after the war when the nation came to appreciate what it had asked its young soldiers to do at a personal level.

Then, a growing dislike for the Vietnam War leeched into dislike or hostility for the warriors (the generals and soldiers). Today, a nation divided about both Iraq and Afghanistan wars can nonetheless honor and respect the warriors, in part because the messengers are so different (or are portrayed as different).

In important respects this honoring of our warriors is because of their authenticity. In a media saturated world endlessly spun by spin, the problems in our theaters of war are very real: from combat to terrorism to sectarian conflict to the clash of factions in regions with consequences for us all. Civilians stand in awe of the bravery and sacrifice -- sometimes the ultimate sacrifice -- of military men and women.

I think it is the grappling with important problems with greater-than-expected candor, genuine authenticity and extraordinary sacrifice that accounts for the military's high standing. The chosen military messengers often convey that. Can we say the same of other sectors of society: hard problems, candor, authenticity, sacrifice?

By Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

 |  November 2, 2009; 2:05 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Westermoreland was an extension of the politics in Washington at that time. He was a product of World War II...perhaps the last "soldiers war", whereas General P is more of a political oriented general officer in the modern sense. Certainly, General P is intelligent and worldly..but, during the Vietnam War there was the "best and the brightest.." who too guided our foreign policy "mistakes". Has General P taken a "stand" on the issue of our strategic vision in Afghanistan..and the troop levels..I think not..at least not at this writing.

That said, I cannot recall ever in American history that the US invaded a country with the
horrific results as the Iraq War. A war based on fabricated "evidence" and false allegations and propaganda from the Whitehouse with devastating historic consequences..of which the American people will "pay" for years to come. Not withstanding the losses we have suffered in human and material losses, let alone the cost.

All I wish is that people speak the truth...the political dimension aside.

Afgh/2003;Iraq/2005;HOA/2007-08

Posted by: LTC-11A | November 3, 2009 4:20 AM
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Greetings to Warren Buffet.

Posted by: devastatetownpost | November 3, 2009 3:00 AM
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Westmoreland was an honorable and capable soldier. The Left was born and weaned on the Vietnam War, so Westmoreland is a convenient villain for those who only operate in cliches. Westmoreland was operating within the parameters laid out to him by first Kennedy and later Johnson, and the war was lost ultimately because lack of political will. This only proves to us why American don't trust politicians.

Posted by: pgr88 | November 2, 2009 2:55 PM
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Yeah, Americans love the military guys. That's why they preferred TANG hero George Bush over fake soldier with commendations John Kerry. And Obama over serial plane crasher John McCain. And let's not forget good old five deferments Cheney.

Posted by: branfo4 | November 2, 2009 2:46 PM
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