It is indeed an uncommon occasion in history when a theorist is able to apply their teachings directly to the field of expertise. International development experts watch with semi-morbid fascination as Ashraf Ghani, who co-authored the book ‘Fixing Failed States’ with Clare Lockhart, struggles to bring institutional renewal and stamp out corruption after his election as President of Afghanistan.
In the same way, those who study military strategy and civil-military relationships relished the appointment of LTGEN H.R. McMaster as the US National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration. Those who have followed McMaster’s career are familiar with his intellect, direct nature and operational experience (he commanded the US 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment in Ninewah Province, Iraq, in 2005).
President Trump’s appointment of McMaster prompted me to pull ‘Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam’ off my bookshelf. It is an adaptation of McMaster’s PhD thesis and has earnt a reputation as a dense and incisive study of this important period in modern US history. McMaster’s dissection of the decision-making and political dynamics of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is impressive in its detail and lucidity. His research brings to life the day-to-day machinations of national strategy, and his analysis and conclusions are a damning indictment of the hubris and deception within the political and military echelons. It is a book that deserves to be read by military professionals, civil servants and political leaders. ‘Dereliction of Duty’ is not so much a history book, but a moral story.
At its heart, ‘Dereliction of Duty’ is an exploration of how military strategy, when pursued as a consensus-building exercise to walk a middle course, can result in failure and the disastrous loss of lives and treasure. McMaster builds a compelling story of deliberate deceit, concealment, self-censorship and compromise amongst the President, his national security staff and the Joint Chiefs. The book deals with the three years in which the US ‘sleep-walked’ into a massive commitment to Vietnam without a clear set of strategic goals. When McMaster lays out the US approach of gradually ‘ramping up’ its military response to the communist regime in North Vietnam, one gets the sense of strategy applied like a dining room light dimmer switch. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was under the dangerous illusion that the use of force – once ratcheted up – could be easily dialed back. To him and others in the US Administration, war could be operated like a system based on rational cost-benefit calculation.
‘You Fight the War You Have – Not the War You Want’
President Johnson is laid with primary, overarching responsibility for the massive US commitment to Vietnam. After replacing the assassinated John Kennedy, LBJ was fixated on his ‘Great Society’ platform of social justice and civil rights in the US. Ironically, he saw the brewing conflict in Vietnam as a side-show that needed to be prevented from detracting from his domestic agenda. Every political decision for the Vietnam problem was thus cast in this light; LBJ acceded to McNamara’s gradual approach and deliberately attempted to conceal or deceive the public as to the growing scale of US involvement.
The gradual approach was in fact the means of getting the US knee-deep into Vietnam; it had the exact opposite result that LBJ intended. McNamara, deeply influenced by the successful management of the Cuban missile crisis, mistakenly assumed that precise military actions by the US would result in predictable responses from the North Vietnamese leaders. This ‘strategic messaging through the use of force’ elicited the wrong or opposite reaction: instead of deterring the Communists from subverting South Vietnam, early US bombings spurred the North Vietnamese to increase the pace of their takeover campaign. The graduated force strategy might be excusable were it not for a Pentagon war game that correctly predicted the results of such a strategy: a cycle of escalation and force commitments from which the North Vietnamese or the US could pull back. The war game was disregarded.
‘Dereliction of Duty’ thus casts the Vietnam problem in a light that is very familiar to us – how does a nation fight a war of limited objectives? When national survival is not at stake, how does a country avoid committing far more than any potential benefit that might be gained? The call of the book is to avoid the alluring myth of doing the minimum, rather than doing what might be required. In the early stages, the Administration faced a fork in the road of abandoning the decrepit South Vietnamese government or making a full-blown military commitment to try and defeat the Communists with overwhelming force. Instead the consensus-based, middle path ensured the US defaulted to the latter choice, but long after any reasonable prospect of political victory had passed.
This disastrous incremental approach was aided and abetted by the mismatched, and sometimes toxic and dysfunctional relationship between the President and national security staff, and the Joint Chiefs. Once again, LBJ’s fixation on his domestic agenda and maintaining a facade of unity shaped everyone else in the strategic apparatus. The Joint Chiefs, who advocated a ‘massive response’, were themselves riven by inter service rivalry and willingly supported smaller initial deployments in the hope that the President would authorise larger deployments later. McNamara’s graduated approach came undone, when incremental military actions and troop commitments became a self-perpetuating logic, to the point where the US found itself ‘owning’ the war.
Given the dire warnings contained in the book, one cannot help but think how HR McMaster, as the US President’s ‘point man’ for coordinating national security strategy, would heed his own writing. While it is often said that ‘information without influence is useless’, the book also teaches that influence that is prized over good information is immoral and can invite catastrophe. ‘Dereliction of Duty’ warns against the effects of over-reliance on a close, like-minded circle of advisors.
It is unclear where McMaster lies in the pantheon of those who exert influence on President Trump. One can hope that the US strategy on intractable problems such as defeating global violent extremist ideologies, and the North Korean nuclear game does not result in that nation once again ‘sleep walking’ into an untenable situation. For the rest of us, this is a book that deserves to be read.
 Separately, the idea of military force as messaging is very well handled in another excellent book ‘War from the Ground Up’ by Emile Simpson
 In fact, McMaster’s acerbic description of the most senior military commanders of that period prompted a US general to remark that ‘McMaster would one day make a good colonel’!
Copies of ‘Dereliction of Duty’, ‘Fixing Failed States’ and ‘War from the Ground Up’ are available from the Defence Library Service (link only accessible via DPN).
About the reviewer:
Pinghan Chua is a serving Army officer in the Australian Intelligence Corps