Enough Blame to Go Round

Enough Blame to Go Round

Mini Teaser: H.R. McMaster has written a scathing indictment of America's civilian and military leadership during the early phases of the Vietnam war, and he speaks--to a military audience, at any rate--with unique moral authority.

by Author(s): Eliot A. Cohen

H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1997).

Four star generals do not normally consult the writings of junior field grade officers for advice about career decisions. But it was widely reported that when Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogleman decided to resign in 1997, he did so at least in part on the basis of a careful reading of H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty. Fogleman, deeply dissatisfied with Secretary of Defense William Cohen's decision to deny promotion to Brigadier General Terry Schwalier, commander of the ill-fated American installation bombed by terrorists in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, was weighing a decision to resign over a matter of principle. According to at least some news reports, he finally did so after reading this book.

The connection between the general's decision and McMaster's book might not be immediately obvious. McMaster, after all, writes about the tangled skein of decision making that led the United States into the debacle of Vietnam; Fogleman's decision to quit was triggered by what he viewed as an act of gross unfairness. The tie, however, is real enough. McMaster has written a scathing indictment of America's civilian and military leadership during the early phases of the Vietnam war, and he speaks--to a military audience, at any rate--with unique moral authority. His main point is that senior U.S. officers lacked the courage of their convictions, and the country as a whole paid dearly for it. That, presumably, is what moved General Fogleman to the final step in his own path to resignation.

McMaster earned his moral authority under fire. In 1991, as Captain H.R. McMaster, commanding officer, Eagle Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he led a company of American tanks and infantry vehicles in a short, sharp clash with the Iraqi Republican Guards at a battle known only by its location, 73 Easting. A team of researchers from the Institute for Defense Analyses captured the details of that engagement with unusual care, replaying tapes of battle communications, walking the ground, and interviewing participants, and they subsequently rendered it as a computer simulation for training and research purposes. They confirmed what McMaster's subordinates had already known, namely, that he had acted coolly, improvised swiftly, and led bravely. The Iraqis opposite Eagle Troop, 2nd ACR, collapsed in the face of fire and maneuver, dissolving before the advancing Americans who swept through them virtually without loss.

By virtue of his actions and the IDA simulation, McMaster became a hero. In him the Army believed it had found the epitome of its success. Collectively, the Army explained its victory in the Gulf by its cultivation of a cadre of younger officers, professional to the core, trained in the harsh maneuvering grounds of the National Training Center of the Californian desert. Moreover, the McMaster generation of junior officers had grown up in an Army dominated by their counterparts from the Vietnam era--men who were now senior generals and who had come away from that conflict determined to permit neither its tactical nor its strategic errors to occur again. Hence, McMaster, who subsequently went on to gain a doctorate in history at the University of North Carolina, speaks with unusual authority as a symbol of the confident young veterans of the Gulf. His call to his leaders to hold themselves to high standards of professional integrity is, therefore, an important one. No wonder, then, that General Fogleman, himself an acute student of history, would pay close attention to a work that on nearly every page excoriates his predecessors for their unwillingness to speak and act as their positions required.

Given his background, it is not surprising that, with his training and his special generational burden, McMaster speaks as much to current concepts of professionalism and military duty as to the historical events that his study addresses. To be sure, Dereliction of Duty has no small significance as a study of the way in which the United States entered the Vietnam War. It is a professionally researched account of high-level decision making from late 1961 through July 1965, by which point over one hundred thousand U.S. troops were in Vietnam or on their way there. The narrative focuses on a very narrow circle of senior civilians and generals, chiefly, the President, Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Carefully researched and clearly written, the book offers a blow by blow account of what men said and wrote as they began a fateful commitment to a large scale land war in Southeast Asia.

McMaster spares no one in his judgments. He uses the words "lie" and "liar" with a cool disdain that barely conceals an indignation simmering beneath the apparatus of historical scholarship. The President was duplicitous and high-handed; his secretary of defense unspeakably arrogant and dictatorial; the generals craven, parochial, and cowardly. On the evidence presented, one is hard put to disagree.

Yet the thesis, however well articulated and carefully documented, merits a critical look, and not only for purely historical reasons. Vietnam has become the defense establishment's morality play, a cautionary tale of civilian meddling, military timidity, and ensuing--but unnecessary--disaster. From it both statesmen and generals have derived lessons about how to direct and fight wars, lessons accepted virtually without question by the younger generation of politicians and soldiers for whom Vietnam represents nothing more than a vague memory of childhood television. In a sophisticated but not necessarily benign way, McMaster's work contributes to that morality tale. His premises and conclusions deserve careful examination in at least three areas: in its American self-absorption; in its preoccupation with a narrow range of actors; and in its reluctance to explore alternatives to the choices faced by the United States early in the Vietnam War.

Dereliction of Duty, like almost all of the Vietnam literature, tells its story from only one vantage point: that of the United States. American archives provide all of the raw material, and American perspectives crowd out all others. The Vietnamese figure only as mysterious external forces, whose unexplained eruptions or machinations provide the cues for American actors to deliver their lines. To some large extent, this overwhelming reliance on the American side of the story reflects scholarly impediments of a familiar kind--the imperative of learning a difficult Asian language, the closure (or nonexistence) of important enemy archives, and the unreliability of interview information. But those obstacles, however genuine, are not insuperable: between captured documents and the new openness of Vietnam to American researchers, one could, if one wished, tell something of the story from the other side of the hill.

The truth is, however, that most students of the war are simply not interested in the other side's strategy, tactics, organization, and resources, and such strategic solipsism is a dangerous thing. It limits, from a scholarly point of view, even so meticulous a piece of work as this one. But the effects of such self-absorption--a characteristic American failing, alas--are far more dangerous when carried into the world of policy. Ironically, one of McMaster's points about the civilian leadership of the Pentagon is that it knew little about Vietnam and saw no need to learn much about it, relying instead on strategic theories of signaling and limited escalation. It is hard to see why this justified criticism does not also apply to McMaster's own work. His account of the war is limited to Washington, yet, without looking further afield, he concludes:

"The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or on the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, dc, even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war; indeed, even before the first American units were deployed."

To advance such a proposition without looking closely at what was happening in Vietnam itself during this time is, at the least, a curious thing for a combat veteran to do.

No less curious is his declaration that the decisions of 1962-65 predetermined all that would occur in the ensuing six years--again, without reference to how the U.S. military would organize itself for war and wage it. Yet this view is orthodoxy in military circles; namely, that the critical failures in Vietnam were, first, an absence of a clear strategy, second, an incremental commitment of force (particularly in the bombing of North Vietnam), and third, that both mistakes--made by civilian leaders--took place at the outset of the war. At the very least, the notion that no important decisions or choices were made in the period 1965-1970 requires argumentation, and not mere assertion.

There are two alternative views to those advanced by McMaster. One is that no strategy could have achieved the American objective of establishing a free and durable South Vietnam; the second is that the military itself should share some of the blame for the catastrophe. The former requires a careful exploration of the enemy's resources, will, and ability; the latter a more careful scrutiny of what went on in the field.

It was the military and not the civilian leadership that adopted, for the first part of the war, an operational approach of "search and destroy" that devastated the countryside of South Vietnam while doing little to bolster the Vietnamese army. In so doing the Army largely followed the line of thought of American advisers to the French in the preceding Indochina war--advisers who had consistently recommended conventional responses to a guerrilla war, and who had disdained hard-won French lessons to the contrary. Similarly, it was the military that rejected the idea of creating a unified command over American and South Vietnamese forces (a measure that had proven invaluable in Korea), that created ruinous rotation policies that kept many officers in positions of command for only six months at a time, and that accepted a war effort splintered among a half dozen competing commands in Vietnam, Honolulu, and the United States.
McMaster's account, however, focuses not on these shortcomings but on civilian dictation to the military over how to fight the war. His unsparing criticism of the military centers on its unwillingness to express openly and unreservedly to the President and Congress its opposition to the strategy of gradual pressure favored by McNamara. Critical of the brass' willingness to swallow their professional judgments in order to curry favor with the harsh and overbearing secretary, and contemptuous of the petty service rivalries that, for example, kept a highly qualified Air Force officer, General Jacob Smart, from becoming the commanding officer in the Pacific (traditionally a Navy stronghold), McMaster implies that unconstrained military judgment would have served the country much better.

Perhaps--if one assumes that the military had a better idea of how to fight the war. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that it did. Indeed, McMaster's own account makes it abundantly clear that some of the country's senior generals displayed bizarre strategic judgment. General Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force was, throughout, an extreme and relentless advocate of bombing as a cure-all for the flagging war effort and, as well, a rabid opponent of the Army's introduction of helicopters into the ground war. "You fly one of these damned Huey's [the Army's transport helicopter] and I'll fly an F-105 and we'll see who survives. I'll shoot you down and scatter your peashooter all over the goddam ground", he shouted at the Army chief of staff, Harold K. Johnson. But beyond this, one sees in McMaster's account (as elsewhere in the Vietnam literature) no evidence that the military had any consistent strategic alternative beyond more force and fewer constraints on its employment.

In such a vacuum of strategic thinking, the military's chief complaint against the civilian leadership is that it restrained the use of force. But this claim has only limited substance in the case of the war in South Vietnam proper, where troops soon began to pour in far faster than the inadequate ports and roads of that country could accommodate them. Within broad limits (in particular, that of a reserve mobilization, which President Johnson would not allow), the military had a free hand to use over half a million men and unfettered fire power to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam.

More significant restrictions were placed on bombing in North Vietnam, where the President and the secretary of defense hand-picked targets from lists developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thereby engaging in such absurdities as denying pilots the right to strike surface-to-air missile batteries within no-strike zones around Hanoi and Haiphong. In fact, however, as Air Force officer Mark Clodfelter has argued, the civilian leadership actually yielded over time to JCS requests to hit the targets on its lists. The difficulty was simply that given civilian and military reluctance to burn the cities of the North to the ground and to devastate its agricultural system, air power could not hope to break the will of North Vietnam. Moreover, the civilian leadership was haunted by the specter of Korea, a war as close to them in time as Ronald Reagan's second term in the White House is to us today. Fearful that bombing targets close to the Chinese frontier, in Hanoi, or the port city of Haiphong would provoke an expansion of the war inducing open Chinese or even Soviet participation in it, McNamara and Johnson approved increased air operations gingerly. Such broader international calculations bulked larger in the minds of American leaders than one might think today. McMaster reports these fears, but does not give them much weight.

McMaster's specific critique of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is two-pronged. First, he holds them responsible for a paralyzing inter-service rivalry that had some of the consequences noted above. His second criticism is more troubling: excessive loyalty. The recurrent theme in McMaster's book is that the generals and admirals should have done something--resign, protest vociferously, or declare to Congress their opposition to the strategy of the war. To these main criticisms, and other lesser ones ably described in the book, one might add the absurdity of allowing the war to be controlled by a headquarters located in Honolulu, thousands of miles from the war zone, and preoccupied with the vastness of the Pacific region from the Aleutians to Australia.

One wishes that McMaster's epilogue had treated the issue of excessive loyalty at greater length. Although the criticism is strongly implied throughout three hundred pages of preceding text, the epilogue is McMaster's opportunity to come four square with it. But he doesn't. What should the Vietnam-era brass have done, and when, precisely, should they have done it? Was Army Chief of Staff Johnson really so wrong to think that his resignation would have made a difference for two days and then been forgotten? What would be the consequences of a system in which general officers were to resign offhandedly over strategic disputes? After all, both General George C. Marshall and Admiral Ernest J. King had thought President Roosevelt's insistence on the North Africa landings in 1942 a ruinous mistake--should they have quit? We are not told. Nor have those who insist on resignation as the proper remedy for insufficient attention to military opinion ever squared the right of senior officers to quit in honor over strategic disagreements with the denial of similar rights to conscripts or junior officers who, after all, pay the price in blood for their leaders' ineptitude or division.

McMaster is on surer ground if he believes that the generals had an obligation not to resign but to state their views stubbornly and firmly to the secretary and the President, orally and in writing. This, it is clear, they were hesitant to do--not for the first time were men of undisputed physical courage considerably less brave in the civic sphere. But McMaster's views are not entirely clear on what ought to be one of the book's key points.

More dismaying yet is McMaster's harsh (though convincing) account of the tenure of General Maxwell Taylor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1962-64. President Kennedy saw in this brainy and youthful paratrooper, who wrote books as well as read them, the model general of the New Frontier. McMaster, correctly, sees in him a far more sinister figure--manipulative and too chummy with his political masters to serve them well. Yet to some extent, Maxwell Taylor was merely the forerunner of the modern chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, cloaked with the responsibility to serve as the chief military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense, is effectively commanding general of the armed forces. Taylor represented, moreover, a type of officer all too comfortable with the ways of Washington, with predecessors and successors aplenty; it is fair to suspect that he was not the last chairman of the Joint Chiefs to view himself as a member of a president's political team rather than as a soldier pure and simple.

McMaster concludes with two interesting sentences:

"When the Chiefs requested permission to apply force consistent with their conception of U.S. objectives, the president and McNamara, based on their goals and domestic political constraints, rejected JCS requests or granted them only in part. The result was that the JCS and McNamara became fixated on the means rather than on the ends, and on the manner in which the war was conducted instead of a military strategy that could connect military actions to achievable policy goals."

There is, however, nothing problematic about the situation described in that first sentence. Civilian authority had every right, indeed, a clear responsibility, to insist on its conception of American objectives, and its understanding of political constraints, foreign as well as domestic. It was not disagreement--typical of decision-making in most wars, after all--that led to disaster; rather, it was the failure of the civilian leadership to engage its military advisers in a hard and continuous debate about ends and means, and the inability of those advisers to participate effectively in such a debate. In that missing exchange, which might have led to greater civil-military disagreement, not less, lay whatever hopes the United States might have had for victory.

In the "authorized" but, in truth, mythic version of history after 1991, the triumph of the Gulf War is the polar opposite of Vietnam. In the Gulf (supposedly) the civilians set clear goals and then got out of the way, abjuring the kind of meddling that led to catastrophe in Vietnam. In 1991, a unified military, setting aside their service prejudices, went confidently to war under the sure guidance of a powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strengthened by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Without friction or conflict (supposedly), civilians and soldiers marched off in harmony.

The reality is more subtle. The Gulf War was exceptional in almost every strategic respect imaginable, most notably in the freedom of action international politics allowed the United States in 1991. There were no hard tradeoffs to be made between needs in one corner of the globe and another; the enemy had no patrons, indeed, almost no friends at all; he had put himself utterly in the wrong with the American public and most of world opinion; and he had exposed himself in the most foolish way imaginable to the vastly superior technology of the United States. In such a war statesmen and generals need not quarrel overmuch, although quarrel they did.

But such good luck is not the norm. Even when soldiers and statesmen are of the highest quality, they still have such different backgrounds and imperatives before them that they must, almost of necessity, disagree in the course of a difficult war. A government at war needs not a president willing to hand over the conduct of war to his military advisers, nor generals willing to pluck the stars from their shoulders in protest at civilian "meddling", but politicians and officers who can engage in a serious dialogue about ends and means. That dialogue--which characterized Lincoln's leadership in the Civil War, and Churchill's in World War II--will always be extended and difficult. It must be an unequal dialogue, as well, since the political leadership must never concede its right to mold strategic choices in accordance with the needs of policy. In such a dialogue, it is the military officer's duty to state his views candidly and bluntly, running the risk of dismissal, which is an honorable price to pay for honesty.

Recently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, invited Major McMaster to lecture the most senior generals in the American military about his book. These men are nearly the last of the Vietnam generation still on active duty; their sense of Vietnam's lessons are probably too deeply ingrained to change very much. But in fifteen years or so the McMasters of today will have become generals. One hopes that the lesson they will have learned from Vietnam is not so much the imperative of resignation and protest, but rather the skill to engage their civilian superiors. One also wishes them the wisdom to understand strategic problems that may seem no less baffling to them than did those of Southeast Asia to their predecessors a generation ago.

Essay Types: Book Review