Finishing the H.R. McMaster Book

Well, after almost finishing Dereliction of Duty by H.R. McMaster, I’m definitely going to be ready for a good new mystery. Maybe even a Grisham — something formulaic, entertaining, and relatively mindless.

I will finish DofD, but I think I have the key points:

Lyndon Johnson was far more passionate about getting his Great Society programs through Congress, and he didn’t want the conflict in Viet Nam to serve as a distraction. He was willing to lie to Congress and the American people about the build-up, to try to keep the steadily escalating war out of the newspapers and off the evening news;

McNamara vastly overgeneralized from the Cuban missile crisis, even though Cuba and Viet Nam were different kinds of conflicts, and had an unshakable certainty that gradual increases in force would make the North VietNamese back down as it had the Russians. He was willing to hear only the information that supported his assumption;

The Joint Chiefs couldn’t agree on one single thing about how to pursue the war, could never speak with one voice, and couldn’t ramp up their process to respond nearly fast enough to counter McNamara — who skunked them at every turn;

Beginning with President Kennedy and continuing through the Johnson administration, senior White House officials had more confidence in their chosen group of political advisors than in the military brass, and because every armed conflict has both military aspects and political ones, the advisors had more clout in every key decision.

As those of us who lived through the Viet Nam conflict know, nothing good happened from there.

I see parallels today. The Trump administration has some well respected military people in important posts — McMaster and Mattis at NSC and Defense. But Trump seems to listen more to Bannon, Miller, and Kushner, who have no idea what they are talking about and mostly just want to blow up the American system of everything. Trump also believes a whole lot in a big military buildup, even though we’ve seen time and time again during the Viet Nam war and since that overwhelming military force doesn’t necessarily carry the day.

Would I recommend Dereliction of Duty? I would, but with some caveats. I think the level of detail about Viet Nam appeals more to those of us who lived through that era that to readers born later. Viet Nam as a country is, in retrospect, largely insignificant to anything that unfolded later. The country has meaning for us only because so many Americans died there, and because it’s the first time we probably realized that U.S. presidents lie. Dereliction of Duty is also a serious read. Whatever chunk you take on from one day to the next is like tackling an issue of Foreign Policy or the Economist and reading it cover to cover — well written and enlightening, but heavy on the brain.

McMaster is, if nothing else, a serious thinker and writer. I can’t imagine what he’s doing on the Trump team, or how long he will stay there.


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