Demonizing Those We Dislike

I am writing a eulogy for a man I never really knew, for a soldier, and the commander of our troops, in an illegal, undeclared war that I abhorred. His name was William Westmoreland. He was the commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam. He died last week, at the age of 91, in South Carolina.

For those of us who hated the Vietnam War and demonstrated against it, or went to Canada, or “bought” psychiatric deferments or got placed at the top of National Guard lists to avoid service, Westmoreland stood out as the symbol of the war crime known as Vietnam.

Yes, LBJ, Rusk, McNamara, the joint chiefs _ all of them were guilty. But Westmoreland was there. He was on the ground, sending our troops to be slaughtered. I hated him. So did hundreds of thousands of others. The war ended, finally, in 1975, and Westmoreland, who had been relieved of his command earlier, disappeared back into the Army and then retirement.

Old soldiers never die; they just fade away, as MacArthur said. Until I resurrected him, so to speak, on the 20th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, in January of 1988. I was the producer of my father’s late-night syndicated television talk show, called Speaking of Everything with Howard Cosell.

We premiered on the actual date of the Tet anniversary. And we decided we wanted to go back in time, to reflect and reconsider what had happened to all of us then, and in the intervening decades. We gathered up (retired) General Westmoreland, Colonel David Lowndes, our commander at Khe Sanh, and some former Vietnam vets, and shot the 60-minute show at West Point before an audience of cadets who had been born during the Vietnam War and certainly did not remember it.

It turned out to be a great 60 minutes of TV. But for this producer, it was much more. The entire day was shock after shock as I was relentlessly slammed against my own preconceived notions, prejudices, hatred for the war and this man who represented it.

Shock No. 1 for the producer: Westmoreland was not a demon with blood all over his hands. He was a quiet and friendly elderly man, a career officer in the armed forces _ not a career choice I much respected, but it wasn’t my chosen profession.

Shock No. 2: If you looked carefully into his eyes, you could see the bodies of our missing, wounded and dead still lying there. No one had forgotten, least of all Westmoreland. I expected bluster, the knee-jerk military line and defense of the war.

Third shock: I didn’t get it. Instead came a quiet, thoughtful reflection. At one point my father leaned forward and looked into Westmoreland’s eyes and asked, “General, are you a bitter man?”

“No, Howard,” he replied after a pause. “Just a tired one.”

But something passed between them for a moment before Westmoreland answered. I was certain it was a moment of unspoken kinship. The pure understanding of two men whose lives, in completely different spheres, had often been twisted beyond recognition from their original intentions and actions.

Make no mistake. This is not an apologia for General Westmoreland, for the lies he told the American people, for the huge part he played in that tragic, pointless war. Nor it is a simpleminded observation that everyone is a “nice person, when you just get to know them a little.” Even Hitler.

Instead, it is a caution to all of us to be very careful whom we demonize, and why we demonize them.

There is far too much apocalyptic talk in our country today, some coming straight from the White House and Capitol Hill. The word ‘evil’ is tossed around like a ball in a game. Nations and world leaders the current administration dislikes are referred to as the Axis of Evil. Demons are everywhere, it seems, the way communists once were.

Yes, there is evil in the world, and there are evil people. William Westmoreland was not one of them, no matter how my generation demonized him at the time.

So I thank him for all the time off camera we talked about the war, when I told him how I’d demonized, blamed and hated him. I thank him for how graciously he listened, and answered me. I thank him, with very mixed feelings, for his service to our country.

If this nation can learn a lesson from Westmoreland’s life and times in Vietnam, perhaps the lesson is one of resisting the temptation to demonize those we dislike in positions of power. It’s a lesson I’m working on right now with Karl Rove.

(Hilary Cosell is a writer based in Rowayton, Conn.)