Dereliction of Duty, Part Two

August 22nd, 2007

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As the President prepared for a battle with Congress over the future of the war, he asked his national security advisor to prepare the arguments that the Pentagon would face on the Hill:

We are trying to fight a war we can’t fight and win, the country we are trying to help is quitting. The failure on our own to fully realize what guerrilla war is like. We are sending conventional troops to do an unconventional job. How long – how much…aren’t we talking about a military solution when the solution is political. Why can’t we interdict [guerrilla supply lines] better…why can’t we improve our intelligence – why can’t we find the [enemy]?

This isn’t a leak from today’s Bush White House – the President was Lyndon Johnson. Those words were penned by McGeorge Bundy in July 1965 to buck up the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Congress asked hard questions about America’s sideways slide into Vietnam. But obviously those same words could have been written yesterday by Stephen Hadley.

The quoted passage appears in Dereliction of Duty, the book by Army Colonel HR McMaster, who I wrote about a few weeks ago when he was passed over for flag rank. At the time of that Dispatch, I knew of the book but, as my grandfather used to say, I hadn’t read it personally.

Now I have, and you should too. The book is amazing – an incredible expose of America’s slouch to war in 1964-65. It was a great and instructive study of the relationship between the President, Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs even before Iraq, but the eerie similarities to our present quagmire make it truly astonishing for readers today.

Here’s McMaster’s judgment on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (penned in 1997):

They did not recommend the total force they believed would ultimately be required tin Vietnam and accepted a strategy they knew would lead to a large but inadequate commitment of troops, for an extended period of time, with little hope for success.

Little wonder that Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, still stinging from his public lashing by Paul Wolfowitz after he told Congress (correctly) that post-invasion Iraq would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers,” handed the book out as his going away gift to his staff and friends when he left the service in 2003.

In another passage, McMaster describes one of Shinseki’s predecessors, then Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson. Noting that General Johnson knew the McNamara plan was a recipe for disaster, Johnson stayed silent: He was to preside over the disintegration of the Army…Harold Johnson’s inaction haunted him for the rest of his life.

The mistakes of the civilian overlords in the Bush Pentagon are legion, and many are already well known. But they were joined by some enablers in uniform too, and as McMaster’s blistering study and some contemporary books like Fiasco make clear, the senior military leaders who helped create the catastrophe in Iraq will not escape the judgment of history.