Understanding H.R. McMaster – The Mind Of The War-Maker

It appears that Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has brought out the daggers and consolidated his position in the National Security Council, dumping Trump strategist Stephen Bannon and downgrading the role of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert. The Pentagon chiefs will dominate the Council.

It’s worth a closer look at McMaster’s now slightly-famous book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, in order to gain a window into the possible direction of Trump’s America in regard to war. Short answer: it does not look good. It does not look good at all.

I took it upon myself to read Dereliction of Duty so you don’t have to. I was hoping to gain some insights into the guy and his approach to conflict. After all, unlike his boss, McMaster has read a few books. He has even written one. This got him that broad compliment and deep bow from the mainstream press, one also bestowed on Gen. David Petraeus, of being a philosopher-warrior, an intellectual of sorts.

Petraeus’ claim to fame is his brilliant insight that perhaps Americans should not just be killing Iraqis and Afghans – we should try to “protect” them. This was hailed as a groundbreaking change in counterinsurgency strategy, some 40 years after the U.S. was soundly defeated in Vietnam.

I’ll get to the book, but I have to lay out a short refresher on the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam—this is still the template upon which U.S. war strategy is constructed.

To begin with, we need to work on the language here. The U.S. military has been frustrated by the challenges of “counterinsurgency” warfare for some time – at least since World War II. But why call it counterinsurgency? Is there some kind of stable government against which someone is insurging? No. The term refers to the problem of invasion and occupation – the challenge is how to suppress local resistance. This was the problem the British had when the American colonies rose up; it was the problem the Germans faced in France and in the Soviet Union during World War II.

And in these situations, the complaints of the invaders are as familiar as they are ridiculous: Why don’t they stand and fight on the field of battle? Why are the “good guys” (the ones who side with the invaders) so inept? Why is victory so elusive?

Note to generals: if you want to strip down to simple cloth clothes, dispense with air power, and carry only a rifle and no armor, the locals might “stand and fight.” But why should they step out onto an open battlefield when you command armored tanks, missiles and airplanes, satellite eyes in the sky, 10 types of guns and 5 types of grenades?

The problem of invasion and occupation is a problem of imperialism, of seeking to impose one’s economic and political dominance over other peoples. By definition this is an act of violence and indeed force is the key factor in an invasion.

US military strategists have described the paradigm of indigenous rejection of such an invasion as “asymmetrical” warfare – basically conflict in which the invaded has vastly fewer means of committing violence. The way resistance is conducted is no secret – the Vietnamese articulated their strategy quite explicitly in the works of Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Viet Minh defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

The point that resistance forces make over and over is that they need to put political mobilization first – that their resistance depends on active involvement and support from communities, whether rural or urban. In an understanding going back to Sun Tzu, they argue that the moral standing of the forces, as well as the psychological disposition, are more important than brute force.

American generals read these articles and scoff, regarding the moral and psychological as so much fluff. In fact, McMaster reports on the Vietnamese communist strategy that was published for all to see (p. 36, p. 281), but he does not take it seriously. Force, the ability to blow up and burn human bodies, is the only language he really knows. The imperial generals find themselves winning every battle and losing every war.

As the Vietnamese predicted, the U.S. military came in and set up well-fortified bases, enclaves that were untouchable. But if the enclaves kept the resistance away, they also locked the invaders inside. They were isolated in their steel castles. So the westerners took the next step, little foray patrols out into the countryside, looking for the enemy. These were the familiar “search and destroy” missions – heavily armed teams of Americans stomping through the rain forests, often with helicopters and jets overhead, with no idea where they were. The local population had the advantage, knowing every nook and cranny of the neighborhood, choosing when and where to strike. The “war of the flea” is one of constant harassment – a conundrum the best minds of the Pentagon could never solve.

Have no doubt. The Americans tried every brutal method they could to crush the ongoing organizing and resistance of the population. Hoping they could keep the “subversives” from contacting the population, they moved the villages of whole districts into prison camps, known as “strategic hamlets.” This strategy had been developed in the 1950’s by the British in Malaya and tried by the French in Vietnam earlier. The language, of course, was of “protecting” the rural population and helping them with “economic development.”

At the same time, the U.S. intensified bombing throughout the 1960s. They relentlessly bombed North Vietnam as well as areas in the south where resistance was strong. They also bombed nearby countries where local resistance as well as supply routes had been organized and built. By the end of the war, the U.S. had dropped seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia - more than twice the amount of bombs dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II – and remember that Vietnam itself is only about 80% the size of California. So keep in mind: no military effort was spared, no horror was ruled out, in an attempt to break the resistance.

As the various plans of the invaders failed and they were isolated, as the mobilizations against them expanded, the Vietnamese brought to bear larger unit actions.

But always the political, moral, and psychological resistance dimensions were key, not only domestically in Vietnam. The resistance strategy was worldwide and the disgust with the war throughout the world, including inside the US, posed limitations on what the war makers could do. The campaign of political organizing against the invasion took place in the villages of the Mekong Delta as well as on the college campuses and the army barracks of the US. To the Western mind, limited to narrow pragmatics of force, the domain of military action was completely separate from the troubling issues of anti-war protests and resistance. But in fact that is how the Vietnamese resistance defeated the mighty US. The generals could never see that, even as it was in front of their faces.

This is not to equate today’s Taliban or Isis or any of the other retrogressive forces with the Vietnamese or in other Third World revolutionary forces in the 1960’s and 70’s. But the local resentment of the occupied is the same, and the ability of weaker forces to defeat the invaders follows the pattern of guerrilla resistance. While the ethics of these forces are abhorrent, the moral low ground of the invaders is the same.

Hence we come to the discussion about “what to do about counterinsurgency.” The solution, inevitably, is that the weak-kneed politicians and cowardly civilians needed to be shut up. Reactionary journalist Norman Podhoretz whined that “a fickle and spineless public, an unpatriotic anti-war movement, and undisciplined soldiers had ashamed the nation by their unwillingness or inability to do what was necessary to destroy North Vietnam.” Basically, the idea was that a military dictatorship, instead of the messiness of democracy, could solve this problem.

The U.S. military had to wait some decades for Americans to get over the “Vietnam syndrome” – i.e. the idea that we shouldn’t be carrying out these invasions and imperialist ventures. Ronald Reagan tried a small, easily winnable war with the invasion of Grenada in 1983. When George H.W. Bush launched Desert Storm in 1990, he declared, “It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” With the easy victory, it seemed that America’s reluctance to invade was over. But after 27 years of war in Iraq and the region, the lessons are still there; the people of the world are still resisting empire.

OK, all of this was just warm up. Now to McMaster’s book, apparently developed from his PhD thesis at UNC. Fair warning: I did not expect a peace manifesto, not from the top National Security (War) Council appointee of Donald Trump. But my, oh my. To call him a fool would be an understatement. He’s not stupid. But he is a moral monster.

In 334 pages, he noodles around in the narrow world of Pentagon-think, never considering or even mentioning the lives and experiences of people on the ground, either Vietnamese or U.S. military. Not the 58,000 Americans thrown into the maws of war, not the three million Vietnamese coolly murdered, not the nearly half million killed in Laos and Cambodia. These American generals move lives around like pawns on a chessboard, coldly slaughtering thousands to advance their careers. They will sentimentally invoke the heroic dead in order to browbeat critics, but they don’t give a flying f*#k about these people, of that there is no doubt. So it takes some getting used to reading all these pages on Vietnam without ever encountering a human death. One gets desensitized reading this officer jargon so I have to drop in a poem here, before I get sick. Here is W.H. Auden reminding us how humans experience war:

Here War is Simple

by W H Auden

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan
For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.
But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:
And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now: Nanking. Dachau.

McMaster talks a great deal about debates on military strategy in the U.S. government and military leadership. But in this whole assessment of Vietnam he never mentions the use of napalm, the burning of villages, the destruction of rain forests and human bodies with Agent Orange, the CIA’s Phoenix program of assassinating civilians who oppose the Saigon regime, the Tiger Force slaughters of civilians, the My Lai massacre. These facts, crucial facts that explain the horrors of the war, are absent from his “strategic thinking.”

That aside, if you can ever put it aside, let’s try to penetrate the mind of McMaster and his insights on U.S. military strategy. What can we learn from this, his PhD dissertation and best-selling book?

His basic thesis is that the military leadership was shunted aside, marginalized, in the development of a war plan during the early 1960’s. The military leadership had clashed with President John F. Kennedy in 1962 during the Cuba Missile Crisis. They wanted an all out invasion of Cuba and massive air strikes to crush the revolution and Fidel Castro. Kennedy managed to keep them at bay and negotiate a withdrawal of the missiles by Khrushchev. Thereafter, Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson sought to keep the generals’ influence at some safer distance—they were regarded as trigger-happy and devoid of strategic thinking.

As the U.S. succeeded the French as the main colonial force in Vietnam, propping up an unpopular pro-Western government in Saigon, local uprisings and increasing military challenges from the National Liberation Front as well as the North Vietnamese were on the rise. McMaster points out that Johnson turned to Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who was previously the president of Ford Motor Company. McNamara was a systems guy, a businessman who believed in data and complex analysis. He did not get along with the likes of “Nuke-em-all” General Curtis LeMay, head of the Air Force. LeMay was famously satirized as General Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove.

So from the beginning of the U.S. entanglement in Southeast Asia, the generals wanted to go all out. Just as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer “had taken an unequivocal position on Laos and believed that he United States should be prepared to use its full power before deciding to intervene anywhere,” (p. 22) so Air Force General LeMay insisted that the U.S. should intervene massively in Vietnam to assure “victory.” (p. 65-66) He had cut his teeth during World War II when he coordinated the firebombing of Japanese cities and the mining of Japanese rivers.

Now don’t get me wrong. There were really no good guys in this scenario. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor (the Kennedy appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs who became U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam) were as ghoulish and guilty as any. McNamara later expressed his mea culpas in a memoir (In Retrospect) and a documentary (Fog of War). They all continued to hold on to the idea of graduated response, step-by-step escalation.

Trying to fight the war with their MBAs (p. 58), McNamara and his merry band of think tankers were of course anxious for a metric, something to measure in order to report progress. So lists were made: number of bombing sorties, patrols taken, and, most notorious of all, “body counts.” (p. 91) Since body counts were the measure of success, middle brass and noncommissioned officers went out in search of someone to kill. If they slaughtered villagers, it was easy enough to claim them as Viet Cong (VC) killed. Sometimes there would be over 100 VC bodies claimed but no weapons recovered (apparently unarmed VC).

I can’t help but pause and remark on the folly of using the American romance with business to turn everything into a business model. We are suffering under that same deluded theories in education. The MBAs in the foundations needed a number and standardized test scores were the easiest ones to obtain. This led to massive changes in classrooms, the dumbing down of the curriculum, the gutting of arts and sports programs, and the transformation of teachers into test prep clerks. The standardized tests are the body counts of today’s education business model.

So here we had the clash of two clueless factions: the measured response by Ivy League guys like McNamara and the bombs away posse with LeMay and General Westmoreland—graduated pressure vs. the sharp blow; bombers vs. stranglers McMaster essentially argues that the generals were marginalized, lied to, and disempowered. In the end, we must remember, all the horrendous ideas the generals had were implemented. Perhaps McMaster thought they would work better if tried earlier. Well, let me take that back. Two ideas of the Pentagon that were not implemented were nuclear weapons and the total destruction of the complex and necessary dike system in North Vietnam. The former would have slaughtered hundreds of thousands; the latter would have drowned as many and starved as many more. McMaster never says it but perhaps he believes that was the one way we could have “won.” Again, the mad calculations of people devoid of ethics or even the most fundamental human feelings.

In a decidedly weak bit of historical speculation, McMaster suggests that Johnson was unable to decide on military action because of a tragic flaw in his personality – he was psychologically insecure, he “desired unity and feared dissent” (87) – ominously arguing that LBJ was naïve and subjective, he was not tough enough to buck public opinion and debate. He would not blow the Vietnamese into the Stone Age and he would not pull out. Like Hamlet, he dithered.

As an amateur historian, McMaster seems unable to grasp the large political and strategic factors that made the Vietnam debacle inevitable. He would reduce this major U.S. blunder to the psychology of a single person. Now you can imagine McMaster advising president Trump to man up, damn public opinion and international law, and go full speed ahead into whatever war he has chosen.

Some of the tactics the U.S. tried were almost comical. They devised the idea of having the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) carry out parachute attacks into North Vietnam to do sabotage. But of course the ARVN paratroopers were not particularly committed to the fight. They were interested in getting a U.S. paycheck. So often the troopers would not show up for duty, or ARVN officers came in drunk so as to be taken off the mission. And most of those who did drop into North Vietnam disappeared. Again, the factor of the political and moral makeup of the military was a factor the generals never understood.

I myself went through training for Vietnam – I was there as a draftee in 1968, a soldier firmly against the war. I worried at first that I would be harassed or hurt during training, singled out as a troublemaker. It turned out, of course, that being a GI organizer, the one with contacts for anti-war coffee houses and lawyers, made me wildly popular. It was a demoralized army, one that did not want to fight and was on the verge of open rebellion or complete collapse, from the privates through the NCOs. So I know something of the psychological and moral dimensions of warfare. When I went AWOL after advanced training, half of my company did too.

By the summer of 1965, the military chiefs wanted to increase the U.S. troop commitment to 82,000 while even then, in the early days of the anti-war movement, the politicians worried about resistance from the public. (p. 279) Of course the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam was increased, to over 500,000, only creating more targets for the guerrillas.

By 1968 the vast majority of the public was firmly against the war but the government and the military carried on, killing hundreds every day, for five more long years. McMaster considers the “errors” in Vietnam to be worrying about public opinion and placing any restrictions on the air campaign. Even as he recognizes that the U.S. was losing more and more popular support among Vietnamese civilians (p. 287), he argues that the military needed the freedom to escalate attacks as they saw fit. But even in 1965, when the body count of U.S. troops was only 400 (there would be 57,600 more), Lyndon Johnson had the chutzpah to invoke the honored dead to browbeat Congress into approving more funds for the war. The cynical use of dead bodies to enshrine some kind of patriotic meaning is one of the most disgusting aspects of war-making propaganda. The military leaders – those strutting officers with inflated egos and personal cowardice (they never get down in the muck of battle) – first kill their own soldiers then intimidate those who would not honor the war.

The final folly of McMaster’s “analysis” is his confused argument that the generals, who were being frustrated in their desire to escalate even further, had a constitutional duty to make a back channel to conservatives in the U.S. Congress. (p. 311) They should have raised their complaints and precipitated a showdown with Lyndon Johnson. While the military is under the president as commander in chief, McMaster feels that the generals, being also responsible to uphold the Constitution, should have raised a bigger stink with the Congress.

Apparently this is where his gut-check title comes from. Dereliction of duty is not just a mistake. It is a crime and one severely punished in the military. He is saying that the generals and civilian leadership should have been tried for not going all the way to “win” in Vietnam. Many of us, of course, feel something different: that they should have been tried before international courts for war crimes. There were war crimes hearings convened by Bertrand Russell, which took evidence for years, but no real prosecutions came of it.

We speak of the tragedy of Vietnam but it is more than that. The American war was a crime. Too arrogant and ignorant to try to understand anything of the Vietnamese, the U.S. military turned to massive destruction. We still have an opportunity to learn something of Vietnam. Read Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen or When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip or so many more.

H.R. McMaster at the helm of the National Security Council is dangerous and deeply disturbing. But we might take heart in remembering the spirit of the guerrilla – and by this I don’t mean tactically, I am not speaking of violence or non-violence. The guerrilla force continues to deal small blows, the war of the flea. Whether in a demonstration or a hunger strike or an act of civil disobedience, the weak confronts the powerful. The guerrilla force chooses the territory to fight in and wins small victories. The guerrilla force is based on political and moral organizing. And the guerrilla force is a learning entity, it evolves and adapts as the struggle goes on. That is what the resistance looks like and I believe in the end we will win.