Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Dereliction of Duty

Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMasterMcMaster_duty

In Dereliction of Duty H.R. McMaster provides a devastating portrait of an administration which stumbled evermore into a war it had no interest in and no understanding of.

McMaster’s central concern is to show the decision making processes that pre-determined a US loss in Vietnam. He begins with John F. Kennedy’s administration showing how its personnel (such as Secretary for Defence Robert McNamara), its structures (ad hoc, personal and without formal committees) and its key ideas (via the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis) were dysfunctional and yet adopted by Lyndon B. Johnson.

On top of this, McMaster adds one more biting critique: That LBJ never wanted to go ‘all the way’, but rather saw Vietnam as a distraction and impediment to his re-election and domestic policy agenda. In McMaster’s view, Johnson was weak and insecure and only concerned with his popularity. This led him to sideline the key office supposed to advise him on military affairs: The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

McMaster’s anger at Johnson and McNamara is well justified. McNamara for instance treated the use of force as an act of communication but, as far as the author shows, seems to have paid almost no attention to thinking about how the enemy would understand his ‘messages’. When extensive US military war games suggested the ‘gradual pressure’ strategy and selected bombing campaigns would not cause the North Vietnamese to halt their actions, McNamara simply ignores the advice.
The ultimate failure of process in McMaster’s view is that the civilian’s ignored the professional military advice which could have saved them from their folly. Yet, as clear as it is that the civilians failed (and indeed lost the war), it’s not clear that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advice was better, or just different. This is a distinction McMaster never seriously addresses, and it undermines the book.

For the first 1/3rd of the book, McMaster’s handling of the JCS reminded me of the role of a chorus in a Greek tragedy. They are brought on stage to critique and condemn the hapless ‘suits’, but are not part of the action itself. McMaster intends for us to think McNamara’s view of warfare as a form of communication must be flawed by regularly comparing it to the JCS’s belief that warfare is about the destruction of the ‘enemy’s will and capability’. But as strategists such as Sun Tzu and Clausewitz have shown, defeating the enemy is rarely the primary concern of the conflict. Indeed McMaster makes the same point indirectly at the end when he critiques LBJ and General Westmoreland’s emphasis on simply ‘killing Viet Cong’.

As the story progresses, the author turns his criticism towards the military, but only on the grounds of their actions (such as failing to stand up to the President), not whether their advice had merit. When that advice is —by the author’s own acknowledgement— both heavily biased by their service identities and not based on a clear understanding of the war, one has to wonder its value. When combined with figures such as Curtis LeMay whose answer to every problem was the same “overwhelming airpower” (if not nukes), the reader can be forgiven for wondering whether such advice was rightfully sidelined.

Analysis by McMaster of the content of their disagreements could have helped clarify the respective merits. Most notably, while the JCS wanted rapid escalation, the administration feared this would bring China and Russia into the conflict. It would have been extremely useful to see McMaster engage the scholarly literature and assess who had the better understanding of the wider context of the conflict. No definitive answer can be given for such a counter-factual, but surely historians have insights into how Beijing and Moscow were thinking during this period and whether they would have engaged in Vietnam in the way China had in Korea a decade earlier.

Maybe this is asking too much. The book is a very impressive piece of scholarship for its ability to piece together the evidence to show who said what to who, who had read which memo, who had responded in time and how the overall thinking of the administration evolved. But McMaster seeks to argue that not only was the process dysfunctional, but the strategy was as well. And while bad strategy often leads to bad strategy, the quality of the latter can’t really be understood without the wider context. As such, the book’s unwillingness to analyse the JCS’ ideas, relatively mild treatment of Kennedy (who left 16’000 military ‘advisors’ in Vietnam), lack of detail about the nature of the North Vietnamese, and role of regional players such as China becomes problematic.

While ultimately this is a flawed book, I think the author’s title is not putting it too strongly. There was indeed a dereliction of duty by the President, his Secretary of Defence and wider administration. While I think the book is too light on the military, the failure of both process and strategy ultimately rest with the President.

If I had been in the office of George W. Bush in October 2001, or Obama’s in November 2008, this is the book I would have recommended that they read. While the military can be just as wrong as anyone else on matters of strategy, I have come to agree with Hew Strachan (and thus McMaster) that we have sidelined the military’s perspective far too much in our recent conflicts. They are neither seen nor heard in our debates about war and peace. We therefore run the risk of repeating LBJ’s folly