Friday, January 12, 2007

Thoughts on "Dereliction of Duty"

As I stated in a previous post, I got 4 books for Christmas. I'm currently working on Guests of the Ayatollah (about 50 pages left). I got done with Col. H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty last week. It's about the period of time from 1961 to 1965 in relation to the country's deepening involvement in Vietnam. It focuses on the relationships between JFK, LBJ, Robert McNamara, some of their senior aides, and the various flag officers who were involved in some aspect with the Joint Chiefs of Staff during this time period.

This book was a fascinating read. It really reshapes the conventional view of the Vietnam War, for as the book says, "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, D.C. even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized their country was at war; indeed, even before the first American units were deployed." It takes a true scholar (like Col. McMaster) to unearth the truth behind the various myths that have been put forth about the American defeat in Vietnam. The truth is that the lies by LBJ and McNamara and the fact that the JCS went along with those lies, abdicating their Constitutional responsibility in the process, set the U.S. up for defeat long before U.S. combat forces had been committed.

To dig a bit deeper, one finds that the reasons for the lies were primarily personal, with a secondary political interest. LBJ was an inherently weak man, someone who craved consensus among his staff and, to put it bluntly, was someone seemingly incapable of making tough decisions. This desire for consensus resulted in a group-think atmosphere in the Administration, where there was no real opposition force within the Administration. Congress and the Joint Chiefs were another matter, but I'll get to those in a second. The fact that McNamara was one cocky son of a bitch (especially after his "masterful" handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis) simply added to the problem by creating a senior policy maker who did not feel the need to listen to anyone who didn't support his views.

You might be wondering where the Joint Chiefs fit in all of this. They are, after all, by law supposed to provide military analysis and advice to the Commander in Chief. They failed miserably at this task. In order to find the root, one has to go back to the Kennedy Administration, whose position regarding the military was that they were a bunch of dumb, uneducated warmongers and that they, the New Frontiersmen, would be able to use their vastly superior education to run things. (I exaggerate somewhat, of course, but the points are valid.) This point of view is only further validated by the Administration's conduct during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where they were successfully able to avert a military showdown by micromanaging the use of military force. McNamara and his aides continued this policy after LBJ became President. The end-game of this sort of a policy is that you either have to co-opt the JCS to your side, or you have to gradually cut them out of the decision making. LBJ's Administration did both. He used his personal charisma to sway the JCS somewhat over to his side and then McNamara, with his blessing, proceeded to cut the JCS out of communications regarding various Vietnam strategy changes. It eventually got to the point where McNamara would simply ignore JCS memos and refuse to pass them on to the President.

At the point the Joint Chiefs found out about McNamara's failure to pass their views on to the President, they had two options: either resign in protest and go public with the lies, or continue to try and work from the inside to change things. They decided to remain inside and work to change until the bitter end. While a decision to remain inside could possibly be justified in the first couple instances of McNamara's ignoring, there is no way their decision could be justified once there was an established pattern of their advice being ignored.

Of course, this dereliction of duty on the part of the JCS begs the question, why? We'll have to backtrack a bit, for first we have to understand just how detrimental their going public would have been for LBJ's Administration. At the time, LBJ was trying to push through his Great Society legislation and needed to keep Congress pacified in order to get this legislation passed; in his mind, the Great Society was more important than Vietnam. (The '64 elections also play a part here.) The bottom line is that by 1964, there is an established pattern of LBJ and his Administration blatantly lying to Congress and to the American people on the subject of Vietnam. As has happened many times before, once they started telling lies the Administration got in so deep they had to tell lies to help cover their initial lies.

So why did the JCS go along with this? There are a variety of reasons, but one of the foremost is that they had fallen under LBJ's charisma. They were set up for this by Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who advised them to always view things from the President's point of view when offering advice. This led to an empathy with the President that was entirely inappropriate given the relationship the JCS and the President are supposed to have. When this was coupled to LBJ's pep talks of the Chiefs being "his team" and him being "the coach," it is almost inevitable that the Chiefs would feel a strong loyalty to the President. This loyalty, combined with lies from McNamara that he was passing their advice up the chain when he was in fact not doing so, led to the Chiefs failing to act until they possessed hard evidence of the Administration's lies. As I said above, instead of acting, they chose to remain on the inside and try and change things, but to no avail. They chose the path of least resistance and ended up helping cause a national scar that took decades to fully erase.

I'm sure I'll be working on this idea in coming days, but it seems to me that there might be some parallels to be drawn between this history and the recent "surge" plan. I'm not quite sure what, exactly, because I haven't had a chance to dig as deeply into the opinions of various generals, but I have heard a couple rather disquieting things regarding possible substantial discrepancies between those opinions and the working plan. Like I said, nothing concrete enough to write about yet, but I'll be exploring it in the coming days, time permitting.

Anyway, Dereliction of Duty is a fascinating book about high level policy and how very personal factors can had a large effect on that policy. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to really understand what happened and why in Vietnam.