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McMaster’s book on Vietnam may offer lessons for Trump

President Trump with Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster on Feb. 20; the two hadn’t met until last week.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
President Trump with Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster on Feb. 20; the two hadn’t met until last week.

WASHINGTON — As commander of an armored cavalry troop, H.R. McMaster fought in the largest tank battle of the Persian Gulf war, earning a Silver Star in the process. Afterward, the young captain reflected on how different his experience had been from the accounts he had read about Vietnam.

So when he arrived at the University of North Carolina for graduate studies in fall 1992, questions swirled through his head: How had Vietnam become an American war? Why did US troops die without a clear idea of their mission? “I began to seek answers to those questions,” he later wrote.

The result was a dissertation that turned into a book that would become, for a generation of military officers, a must-read autopsy of a war gone wrong. Now, as a three-star general and President Trump’s national security adviser, McMaster will have the opportunity to put the lessons of that book to the test inside the White House as he serves a mercurial commander-in-chief with neither political nor military experience.

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The book, “Dereliction of Duty,” published in 1997, highlighted the consequences of the military not giving candid advice to a president. McMaster concluded that during Vietnam, officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff “failed to confront the president with their objections” to a strategy they thought would fail. Twenty years later, the book serves as a guidepost to how he views his role as the coordinator of the president’s foreign policy team.

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“It’s a history, but he obviously draws conclusions about the need for what you might term brutally forthright assessments by military and indeed also by civilian leaders,” David H. Petraeus, a retired Army general and a patron of McMaster, said in an interview. “That’s a hugely important takeaway. He has a record of being quite forthright.”

In his first week on the job, McMaster has shown an independence familiar to past colleagues. He has begun moving to revise an organizational order issued last month that seemed to downgrade the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence, and he told an all-hands staff meeting that he did not consider the term “radical Islamic terrorism” helpful, even as the president insists on using it.

But those are relatively small matters compared with what may come. Already, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, has led the president to put aside his desire to reinstitute torture in interrogations of terrorism suspects, at least by the military. Trump places great faith in the generals he has surrounded himself with, but he and McMaster had never met until a week ago, and the book’s reputation may set a hard-to-meet standard for the general.

The book is central to McMaster’s identity and career. As he embarked on graduate studies after the Gulf War, he approached his adviser, Richard H. Kohn, a professor who specialized in civil-military relations, and said he wanted to explore the role of the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam.

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Using newly declassified records, McMaster came to a conclusion that upended the conventional wisdom within the military that it had been betrayed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and undercut by antiwar protesters and never given the chance to win the war.

McMaster concluded that the chiefs had been absorbed by the parochial interests of their different services and had never adequately pressed their opposition to the gradual escalation strategy favored by Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

After finishing the dissertation, he published it as a book while still a major. It quickly became a sensation. Petraeus recalled bringing it to the attention of General Hugh H. Shelton after the general took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1997. Shelton made it required reading for all of the chiefs and combatant commanders. “It is a valuable resource for leaders of any organization,” he later wrote in his memoirs.