My first view of General William Westmoreland was from coach class. He was in first, sitting ramrod straight, impossible to miss.

We were headed to the University of Florida at Gainesville to debate the Bomb. Why the man who commanded the armies of the Crusade in Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1968 needed in 1984 to debate a lefty activist like me was a mystery. Maybe he needed the money. Maybe he needed the challenge.

He looked like he'd live forever. Certainly into his nineties, which he did, passing away this week at 91. He was tall, poised, flinty-eyed, with zero apparent body fat. Unbent, unbowed, you'd've thought him a conquering hero.

The debate was about the Nuclear Freeze, a great campaign. Why it failed to bury all nuclear weapons remains a great mystery of human nature. Today's world would be infinitely richer and safer if only it had been wiser back then.

That night in Gainesville I lived out a peacenik dream: I got to ask the man who commanded 550,000 troops in Vietnam why we should heed his opinion about needing nuclear weapons when he had so catastrophically led America to its first military defeat.

Amazingly, he didn't seem prepared for the question.

But afterwards, at a party slyly arranged by some liberal faculty, he confronted me. "Harv," he said like he was my teacherly grandfather, "you made a serious misstatement of fact tonight. You said we lost the Vietnam War."

His hands were calmly clasped behind his back. The room hushed.

"We didn't really lose that war. We bought time for the ASEAN nations to hold out against the communists."

That was basically it. Straight from the Source.

The ASEAN nations---the Association of Southeast Asian Nations---were Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia.

They were a huge prize, with enormous population, resources and strategic value. The domino theory by which the US command operated said we were in Vietnam to prevent them from being overrun by the Chinese, Soviets and other communist forces, seen and unseen.

Throughout the Vietnam era, Thailand and Malaysia swung back and forth between nasty dictatorship and faltering thrusts at democracy.

But in 1963 Singapore fell to a brutal totalitarian dictator named Lee Kwan Yew, who turned the former British city-state into an Orwellian nightmare. Ferdinand Marcos ran The Philippines (which the US first conquered in 1903) with an iron fist. And in 1965, the CIA helped kill as many as three million people to give Indonesia to Suharto, a brutal kleptocrat who stole billions from the world's fifth-largest nation while killing or imprisoning all who opposed him.

Were these the model citizens in whose name William Westmoreland claimed victory for American democracy, at the cost of so many lives and so much treasure?

A few months later we debated again at Juniata College, in north-central Pennsylvania. We both flew into Harrisburg and rode together for two hours. I took shotgun. He sat ramrod straight in the back.

"You know, Harv," he said. "A number of articles have come out lately about men your age who've regretted not fighting in Vietnam. Haven't you had any second thoughts?"

My moment had arrived. I twisted to face The Man.

"General, the only second-thoughts I've had about what I did back then have to do with what more I might have done to end that war. I got beat up at the Chicago draft board in October, 1967. Then I got clubbed at the Democratic Convention in August, 1968. I marched at the Pentagon, wrote for a radical news service, did whatever I could think of to get us out. Maybe I should have gone to jail."

There was a brief silence. The conversation quickly turned to college football.

That night the General was a more formidable opponent. When I quoted Dwight Eisenhower lamenting dropping the Bomb on Japan, Westy said he knew Ike, and Ike would never have supported a nuclear freeze.

Where he'd been gentlemanly in Gainesville, now he broke the rules. He claimed to know everyone I quoted and had learned a thing or two about nuclear weapons. It left me wanting a third debate, which never came.

William Westmoreland died of natural causes. But he bore an awful legacy on those square shoulders. Among other things, he sued CBS News for saying that he deliberately misled Lyndon Johnson into thinking the National Liberation Front could be beaten.

It was widely reported he had lied about their numerical strength. But maybe he just didn't believe American troops could be beaten by a non-Christian nation of non-whites. He came from the generation that vanquished the Hun and the Japanese, but those were ancient American beliefs. As best I could tell, he was just too tall and too stiff to believe that southeast Asians with bicycles and alien beliefs could defeat a USA with infinite armaments and not a single military loss since 1812 (which was technically a tie).

Since then, a thousand Cherokee and a thousand Seminoles who escaped into the Smokies and Everglades were all that blemished the US won-lost column except for the Little Big Horn and George Armstrong Custer, with whom Westmoreland has been often compared.

But the ghastly stalemate in Korea should have been an unmistakable signal. For the US, the war in Vietnam was lost before it started. After 200 years the Americans finally confronted a culture imbued---like ours in 1776 against the British---with an inalienable belief in its own way of life, and a command of its own turf sufficient to beat even the world's most formidable military machine.

The Tet offensive of 1968 showed for all with eyes to see that America's age of conquest was over. Only Richard Nixon, and a sicko team of dirty tricksters that included Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, could have been pathological enough to drag on the slaughter for seven more senseless years.

The professor who drove Westmoreland back to the airport the next day---I took a different route---told me later that the General couldn't stop talking about how violent I'd been in Chicago. I'd never thrown a stone, swung a club or pulled a trigger. But this man who commanded history's biggest war machine thought we scraggly anti-warriors who were exercising our First Amendment right to be beaten in the streets were somehow the aggressors.

Maybe he still feared us. Maybe he couldn't get over how truly effective we really were.

Today I long for that third debate. I'd like to ask him if it's true, as Nixon says in his autobiography, that only the anti-war movement stopped him from using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

I'd like to hear him explain why, after all that hype about the communists swarming into California unless we beat them in Vietnam, they didn't after we didn't.

And I'd like him to talk about how, after having learned such painful lessons in Southeast Asia, we now have to re-learn them in Southwest Asia.

Before he died, Westmoreland was once more in the media, explaining why we really won the war in Vietnam, and how we need to "pacify" Iraq.

So maybe what the General really epitomized was why the futility and psychosis seem even deeper and uglier this time around, when some have learned nothing, and history repeats itself as both tragedy and farce.