The mainstream media has thus played up McMaster's academic qualifications in his seminal book "Dereliction of Duty", in which he harshly criticized military brass for not standing up more to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and allowing politicized civilian leadership to pervert and ultimately lose Vietnam. This is a thinly-veiled stab at Trump, who has been long lampooned as ignorant and amateurish.
As someone who takes a keen interest in the Vietnam War as a defining period in American history, and having read “Dereliction of Duty” several years ago, I see “Dereliction of Duty” not as brilliant analysis, but a work that is:
- Old News: It appeals to career military personnel as a classic complaint against civilian leadership meddling and ultimately undermining military objections and victory;
- Self-Serving: It is a position statement by McMaster to show himself as promotion-worthy by like-minded superiors;
- Loses the Forest for the Trees: Dismissive of both domestic and foreign politics, yet without offering any practical alternatives, it focuses narrowly on the failures of American generals to:
(a) Prevent the civilian leadership from lying to the American public about the escalation and ultimate commitment of American troops in Vietnam;
(b) Once committed, push the military's recommendations of overwhelming force to achieve victory ("Another important aspect of McMaster's approach is what might be called an 'absolutist' perspective on the use of force which posits a clear distinction between peace and war. This too has a long and deep tradition in the American ethos. For an absolutist, the objective in war is to use overwhelming force to impose your will on the enemy.")
“War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means.” - Carl von Clausewitz
For 3(b), McMaster and any other officer who thinks that throwing more troops will achieve “victory” is myopic. Despite "Dereliction of Duty" quoting Ho Chi Minh as stating, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win,” the truth of Ho's statement went over McMaster's head. Simply put, the United States was and is politically unable to absorb large numbers of casualties in wars that do not directly affect domestic security (of course, the same may be said of other modern nations as well). More so than other nations, however, the care and adoration the United States demonstrates for its soldiers and veterans conversely translates into enhanced domestic hostility to large numbers of military deaths.
Thus, what is overwhelming force, if not throwing more soldiers which leads to greater casualties? Completely wiping out North Vietnam through conventional bombing? Nuclear weapons? More soldiers mean more casualties. Taking out North Vietnam's infrastructure completely means directly and indirectly killing millions of North Vietnamese civilians, along with an invasion of the north by South Vietnam, which then will most likely result in China and the Soviet Union rejecting such a result and uniting in directly invasion Vietnam on behalf of the North Vietnamese. Then we get another Korean War and direct confrontation between nuclear-armed powers rather than through proxies. Many more American soldiers would have died. The war could have spread to new fronts, such as Korea and Thailand. As for nuclear weapons, we all know what happens when nuclear weapons are no longer for show. Remember, China and the Soviet Union were restrained in their responses even during the active deployment of large numbers of United States troops, because the political message was clear. Does McMaster really understand all of this? Despite the blunders of the civilian leadership, does McMaster really think he could have done any better?
Yes, a good officer and general must place his troops' welfare as a top priority. But officers and generals are not the players, but are the game pieces themselves, so to speak. And as harsh as it may sound, the game of global politics is played, as in chess, with game pieces -- soldiers -- and a national security adviser is in reality part of the hand that moves these pawns, and cannot be in the position of tactical refinement, but rather must retain focus on political awareness, strategic thinking, and resource management and application. Dereliction of Duty is hardly the epitome of such a mature understanding.
For a much better read on the Vietnam War:
Fire in the Lake
The Best and the Brightest
For much better reads by much better national security advisers:
The Art of War