Book Review: Dereliction of Duty

Derelictionby Steve Lancaster    2/26/14
By H.R. McMaster  •  A service member who is derelict has willfully refused to perform his duties (or follow a given order) or has incapacitated himself in such a way that he cannot perform his duties. Such incapacitation includes the person falling asleep while on duty requiring wakefulness, his getting drunk or otherwise intoxicated and consequently being unable to perform his duties, or his vacating his post contrary to regulations.

Article 92 also applies to service members whose acts or omissions rise to the level of criminally negligent behavior. McMaster invokes article 92 of the UCMJ in Dereliction of Duty. His book is directed not only at Lyndon Johnson, but also his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and by extension the Joint Chiefs of Staff who most often failed to voice their professional opinion on an administration that did not want to hear what the military thought.

This is the essential thesis of McMaster’s case; the administration marched into involvement in Vietnam in spite of professional advice from men like Matthew Ridgeway who advised Eisenhower to avoid military combat units assisting the French in 1954. The new Democratic administration of JFK, stung by unfounded charges of being weak on communism during the campaign, and motivated by Khrushchev’s announced support for wars of national liberation in January of 1961, responded in JFK’s inaugural, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Khrushchev, laid down a challenge to the new president, and JFK picked it up in Vietnam. It was a school yard sucker punch. JFK,  his ego high on election hubris, responded without realizing that nemesis was waiting in the wings.

It seems that JFK, and his mostly civilian administration and cabinet, did not read, or failed to understand, Clausewitz, that political goals should be based upon vital national interests and that military goals should be consistent with and support the political goals. Neither situation was true in the Vietnam War at any time. This failure to understand and be consistent is the fundamental idea of McMaster’s book.

Those who did question the policy of either JFK or LBJ were frozen out of the decision cycle. By the later stages of his admiration, LBJ was listening only to those who agreed with him in his Tuesday breakfast meetings. LBJ and his administration continued to send messages to DRV in the hope that something would stick to the wall. But they did not even know where the wall was.

Ho and his successors were not interested in messages that might encourage a Western leader; their focus was on victory and the unification of Vietnam. The failure on the part of every US administration to understand this vital difference was central to American political defeat in Vietnam. And the failure on the part of the secretary of Defense to listen to the professionals in the JCS was a dereliction of duty.

However, the commander at MACV and the JCS shoulder equal responsibility for not pursuing their opinions to the president and in the failure to resign rather than follow a policy that was in fundamental disagreement with the principles of war. In the end, the job was more important to the senior officials and officers than the lives of 58,000 KIA.

McNamara would later back-step from his aggressive pursuit of the war — the regrets of a man trying to make amends and to get into heaven. • (5951 views)

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2 Responses to Book Review: Dereliction of Duty

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    One minor correction is that Ho sought unification under Communist control. Unification under a non-communist ruler was unacceptable.

    As for the idea of dereliction of duty, I would distinguish that from error. For example, Walter Short and Husband Kimmel prepared for the wrong threats at Pearl Harbor (Short was mainly concerned with sabotage, Kimmel with submarines), so they were guilty of error and not dereliction and should have been given another chance (as Morison argued in his naval history). LBJ can be considered guilty of gross dereliction of duty because he escalated not in order to win, but simply to escape being personally blamed for defeat (a point Al Lowenstein once made to Bill Buckley).

    • steve lancaster says:

      Tim,
      Kimmel and Short were causalities of the attack. Indeed they made the classic mistake of being in charge when bad things happen and heads have to roll. If anything they could be charged with peacetime thinking, something our current administration is equally guilty. Kimmel seems to have forgotten that the reason the fleet was in Pearl was to threaten the Japanese.

      I agree both of these men made critical mistakes that ended their careers but it was not willful. If you search for fault you need to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

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