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The Blame Game

DERELICTION OF DUTY: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.\o7 By H. R. McMaster\f7 .\o7 HarperCollins: 352 pp., $27.50\f7

May 11, 1997|BRIAN VANDEMARK | Brian VanDeMark is the author of "Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War." He was research assistant on Clark Clifford's autobiography, "Counsel to the President," and, most recently, co-author of Robert S. McNamara's Vietnam memoir, "In Retrospect." He teaches history at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis

Our nation's Founding Fathers--prominent among them George Washington, general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War--consciously and deliberately put control of the military in the hands of a civilian commander-in-chief elected by, and thus directly accountable to, the American people. Wise men, they did this knowing that civil-military relations, like all human affairs, would inevitably be marked by ups as well as downs when, under the strain of events and pressures and battlefield carnage, goodwill and shared vision would occasionally give way, regrettably, to misunderstanding and even outright disagreement.

But the Founding Fathers structured the Constitution--which all in the United States military swear an oath to defend--so that those moments of misunderstanding and disagreement would always be resolved in favor of the elected president, rather than in favor of high-ranking generals and admirals. They did so to guarantee what they rightly considered two cardinal principles of democracy: keeping the military subordinate to the society that it exists to serve through an elected civilian superior and ensuring political control over policy at all times during war.

Such moments of misunderstanding and disagreement between civilian and military leaders have, thank goodness, been few in the history of the Republic. In the 19th century, they arose most notably between President Abraham Lincoln and the senior Union Army generals--especially George B. McClellan--during the first years of the Civil War. In the 20th century, they arose most dramatically during the Truman-MacArthur controversy of the Korean War and, most poisonously (if measured by long-term consequences), between presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (and, to a lesser extent, Richard Nixon) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the long and failed war in Vietnam.

A product of many shortcomings and blunders in all areas and at all levels of the American government, the Vietnam War produced many hard feelings--not least of which was the perception among some in the military that the civilian leaders, who ultimately caused the debacle, were not just flawed but wicked.

It is never easy for individuals or organizations to admit failure, especially when doing so requires looking in the mirror and, for some in the American military, this has proved difficult indeed. Tending to view the world more in black and white than in shades of gray, asked (and willing) to make the ultimate sacrifice for the country they serve and love, ingrained with a powerful (and understandable) ethos of mission accomplishment, many to this day find it hard, when all is said and done, to accept the idea that the military, too, was fundamentally responsible for America's Vietnam disaster and to accept the equally unsettling, but very human, notion that decent civilian leaders can do profoundly unwise and damaging things.

Something of this regrettable spirit pervades "Dereliction of Duty," the thoroughly researched, clearly written and forcefully argued new book on the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War by H. R. McMaster, a West Point graduate, a courageous Gulf War combat veteran, a professionally trained historian and an up-and-coming Army officer currently stationed at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. It is McMaster's main contention that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not the principal military advisors to the president during the escalation of the Vietnam War and, therefore, he implicitly suggests, were not responsible for what went wrong. He assigns that role--and therefore blame for the Vietnam debacle--to the be^te noire of many in the military, then and now: Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. McMaster asserts that McNamara, in the name of presidents Kennedy and Johnson, usurped the Joint Chiefs of Staff's role and prevented them from doing what they do best--namely, winning wars, including Vietnam. "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," McMaster argues. "It was lost in Washington, D.C."

The trouble with McMaster's thesis is that it misses deeper points, the most fundamental of which is: The Joint Chiefs of Staff did fulfill their role as principal military advisors to the president during the Vietnam War. It was just that their advice was not taken.

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