On February 20, 2017, Lt. General Herbert Raymond “H. R.” McMaster was named as National Security Advisor following the February 13 forced resignation of Michael T. Flynn. McMaster is a combat veteran of the first Gulf War. His most notable accomplishment was commanding Eagle Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of 73 Easting on 26 February 1991 where he led his troop of nine M1A1 Abrams tanks into battle in the opening of the war’s ground attack. McMaster’s nine tanks advanced to contact and then destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks in 23 minutes with no American losses.
His PhD dissertation at UNC was critical of American strategy in the Vietnam War, which was further detailed in his 1997 book Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, book that explores the military’s role in the policies of the Vietnam War.
I have read that book and believe it gives a clear picture of how McMaster thinks, and his opinion of how the civilian control over the military should function, and how it has failed in the past. This may be an indicator of how he sees the future as well, and will most likely be the model that he will use in his role as National Security Advisor.
McMaster’s book outlines the biographies of a number President John Kennedy’s cabinet and military advisors. He describes many of those who were in important positions, but specifically those of Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Both McNamara and Johnson were military officers during World War II, and neither served with distinction in any combat role.
McNamara served as a logistical statistician interested in developing a system where logistics would be reduced to a mathematical model that could be used to shape how best to fight the war. He later used those skills at Ford to successfully manage that business. McNamara was brought into Kennedy’s cabinet during the Cuban Missile crisis where his processes were used to apply a measured response to the Soviet threat. In reality, his work had little to do with the outcome, as Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated a solution with no input from McNamara. His “success”in this area would later lead to his downfall in Vietnam.
Johnson was in the US Navy and flew one time as an”observer” aboard an aircraft that developed mechanical failures, terminating the flight with an emergency landing. General McArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star, one of the highest awards given. He alone was given a medal, even though he had no authority on the flight and was not part of the flight crew. He would become President Kennedy’s Vice President fifteen years later.
McMaster wrote at length about the relationship between Johnson and McNamara and the common ground between them. Both men’s reputations were undeserved and were build on hyperbole, and were exaggerated to give them authority and status. They were both prone to lying to protect each other, and that became their bond.
McMaster concluded that McNamara’s theory of applying just sufficient pressure or a “measured response” often resulted in failure and that he often misled those he reported to by fabricating a satisfactory outcome or deflecting to a similar but distinctly different operation that was a success. He often created a scenario out of whole cloth to prove his theory as correct. Among those were the attack on US Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf, an attack that never took place, yet led directly to the escalation of the conflict.
This fabrication of facts eventually resulted in a situation where “the numbers” became more important than the truth. A complete reliance on statistics and the willingness to produce numbers that corresponded to the expected outcome detached Johnson from reality.
McMaster found that at first, McNamara did not respond to requests from the military when additional authority was needed. He included several examples such as when US forces in Vietnam requested additional troops early in the conflict McNamara’s policy of a graduated application of force rejected that request. Air Force General Curtis LeMay proposed the destruction of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft emplacements before the bombing campaign started, but that was not allowed by McNamara, saying that only responsive fire was allowed, and then allowed a policy of “fire only when fired upon,” resulting in hundreds of aircraft being shot down.
McMaster’s book ends in 1965. Later, McNamara’s plan, supported by requests from top U.S. military commanders in Vietnam, led to the commitment of 485,000 troops by the end of 1967 and almost 535,000 by June 30, 1968. McNamara put in place a statistical strategy for victory in Vietnam. He concluded that there were a limited number of Viet Cong fighters in Vietnam and that a war of attrition would destroy them. He applied metrics (body counts) to determine how close to success his plan was. US forces would provide the requested number to show their progress, with no regard to reality. The casualty lists mounted as the number of troops and the intensity of fighting escalated. McNamara’s reliance on enemy body counts became more important than any other statistic.
In summary, McMaster’s book describes a situation in the President’s office where facts were changed to meet requested expectations, despite obvious disasters which were either ignored or rewritten to be successes. He described how high level authorities lied to each other and to congress about their activities and the associated costs in both dollars and human lives. He described how political connections and careers were more important than the actual events and how that eventually led to our failure in the conflict.
The book is available from most book sellers in both hard and soft binding.