What happens when Military Leaders Lie?


The Ken Burns documentary series The War in Vietnam has a lot to say about war and lying. They go to together like love and marriage. Maybe better.

In June 1967, First Lieutenant Matt Harrison was appointed to be part of a group of an elite unit ready to rush anywhere that they were needed. They were called “General Westmoreland’s Fire brigade.” Harrison thought he was uniquely qualified to lead a troop. He and 2 of his friends were idealists and “Boy Scouts.” He really believed that there was nothing more important than what he was going to be doing in the War in Vietnam.

Perhaps the first day that he was there, an American soldier showed him what he thought was a bunch of dried apricots on a leather thong. He was puzzled–until he realized that these were desiccated human ears. Gruesome Souvenirs. Until then, “I knew theoretically what it meant to be in a war, but of course no one can really understand it until they’ve done it.” Reality behind the ideals had set in. This incident reminded me of Kurz in the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad with his ring of human heads. To Conrad, this was the reality behind the ideals of European colonization. Reality was very different from noble ideals.

On June 21, 1967, just a few days after joining his combat troop, Matt Harrison was leading his men down a mountain side to rescue (he hoped) a platoon of American soldiers on a trail where they had encountered a much larger heavily armed troop of North Vietnamese soldiers. Harrison’s men could not get down because the way was barred by enemy soldiers. During the night, Harrison’s men could hear screams of soldiers and wounded down the mountain. By dawn the North Vietnamese soldiers melted away and Harrison and his men went down to find the American soldiers. “Out of 137 men of Alpha company on the mountain, 76 lay dead. 43 had been shot in the head at close range. Ears had been cut from some. Eyes gouged out. Ring fingers missing. 23 more men were wounded. Harrison found his classmates Richard Hood and Donald Judd among the dead.”

As Harrison said, “This was my introduction to war. This was my welcome to Vietnam. We spent the rest of the day putting those bodies into body bags and getting them out of there. Getting killed is forever. That was something I had known theoretically, but I now understood particularly when I put my 2 classmates in body bags, I said I had gone to school with for 4 years and who were good friends and who just a week before we had been drinking beer and ribbing each other, and these guys were now gone.”

Matt’s Company–Charley Company–found just 9 or 10 Vietnamese bodies. The company was sent to find more bodies. The American senior officers needed their body count. But the soldiers never located more bodies. Matt believed they did not locate more bodies because they were not there, but the military leaders were reluctant to accept that the Americans could suffer such heavy losses without inflicting more damage on the enemy. “To admit that a rifle company in the 173rd had been wiped out by the North Vietnamese was not something our leaders were prepared to do. So we had to sell ourselves and we had to sell the public on the idea that we had inflicted casualities on the North Vietnamese as severe as they had inflicted on us.” It did not matter that it was not true. The leaders wanted it to be true. An American news reporter was told that the rifle company had killed 475 enemy soldiers and of course the reporter believed that and reported it accordingly to the American public. Everyone believed it, but it was a lie. It was fake news.

“When another officer suggested to General Westmoreland that the figures seemed too high to be believable, he replied. ‘Too late; its already gone out.”

As Harrison said,


A couple of days after the battle, Westmoreland came up to speak to us as what we thought of as his brigade, and he hopped up on the hood of a jeep in very crisp fatigues looking every inch the battle Commander and gave us a pep talk, and told us how proud he was about the magnificent job we had done. But by then I had more than just a suspicion that this was the fairytale. That Westmoreland was wrong, and I didn’t know whether he knew he was wrong or he believed what he was being told and wanted to believe, but this was the first time that I had to come to grips with the fact that leadership was either out of touch, or was lying. [1]


It is never good for morale when soldiers start to realize that their leaders are lying to them. Naturally they wonder why? They wonder what is the real truth?

What is the effect of military leaders like Westmoreland sanctioning lies to the American public? Do those false reports go on to the civilian leaders of the military? Was McNamara being fed lies too? How about Johnson? Lies from the military raise many troubling issues. How fair is it for fighting men and women and their families who are laying their life on the line for what they really believe is a noble cause to be lied to? What gives the military leaders that right?

Westmoreland who had already said he could win the war in 3 years now sent an urgent cable to Washington asking for 200,000 more troops. This request came as a shattering blow to Robert McNamara the Secretary of Defence. He offered his President two options: try again to negotiate a settlement with North Vietnam or accede to Westmoreland’s request for more soldiers. Even at that, McNamara was gloomy. He said even then, “the chances of victory might be no better than 1 in 3.”

Under such circumstances was it not absolute madness to even consider sending more men? Yet Johnson’s military advisors in Washington, led by McNamara, these men–the best and the brightest–voted to send more men. Even when the Secretary of Defence believed they had a mere 1 in 3 chances of winning the war!

As Karl Marlantes said,



My bitterness about the political powers at the time, was first of all the lying. I mean I can understand a policy error that is incredibly painful and kills a lot of people, a mistake made with noble hearts…Then you read that by 1965 McNamara knew by 1965 that the war was unwinnable. That was 3 years before I was there. That’s what makes me mad. Making a mistake–people can do that, but covering up mistakes then you are killing people for your own ego. That makes me mad.


         Me too!

How would you feel if you had been sent to a war where the leaders thought there was just a 1 in 3 chance of winning the war, but they kept that pessimism secret and told rosy lies instead? How would you feel if your son or daughter was sent to fight a war 6,000 miles away to keep Communists out of that country when there was such a poor chance of winning the war?


[1] Matt Harrison, The Vietnam War (2017) produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS

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