Dereliction of Duty – H.R. McMaster

“The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.”


So imagine it’s November 1963. You’re Vice President, Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) and you’ve become president because of a well-timed, well-placed bullet ended Kennedy’s life. So instead of living the sweet life of a Vice President, you now have to deal with THINGS and STUFF. Shit just got real.

Especially since Kennedy was so shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War in general, he sent ‘military advisors’ (wink wink CIA wink) to Vietnam. The goal was to prevent the country from succumbing to communism.

But … Things have not gone well.

Like, at all. It’s a mess down there-there are coups and revolutions and Communists and all kinds of strange, and LBJ-you just wants to get elected next year, which means NO FUCK UPs, first and foremost.

Unfortunately, Vietnam is one big barrel of fuck-ups and no good options. Basically, you can either a) go full on in, which means commitment and time and money and all that nasty stuff or b) b, but that’s not the American Way, what will the Soviets think.

Thankfully, your Sec of Defense, aka gel-coiffed business genius (TM) McNamara has a solution to your teensy tiny South Asian Problem. The Solution? The glorious ‘middle way’ between getting in and getting out.

Yes, LBJ-you thinks, that sounds good. McN calls it ‘Graduated Pressure’, and that sounds even better. The idea is to use military actions as a way of communicating with the enemy. You’ll bomb a few locations, and if the enemy gets the message and backs down, great, if not, you can always bomb more locations later on. It’s a no-commitment type of war.

“So, I’ll completely fuck everyone over here, here, and especially here.”

‘But’, LBJ-you asks, ‘what do the generals think of this?’

‘Don’t worry’, McN says while putting an additional pound of gel in his hair, ‘the generals are too busy infighting and not questioning the basic assumptions behind this concept to give any good advice, besides, you don’t like deciding things anyways, so why would I bother giving you options?’

‘That’s right’, LBJ-you says, ‘I really don’t, hence why I like this concept so much – because it allows the conflict to get gradually worse.’

‘Gradually better’, McN says, reviewing the latest Weekly Progress Report, because war is now a business management problem.

No, really, gradually worse, reality says. Congrats, you’re now at war, without ever having discussed whether you should go to war or not, good luck with that.

Then the Ghost of Clausewitz appears, and says: ‘Didn’t I explicitly say that the political objective is the goal, and war is the means of achieving the political goal?’

‘Huh, I guess’ McN says, ‘not that I ever read the most important book on military strategy, because I don’t think that’s necessary.’

‘So what’s your dominant political factor for your military strategy?’ Clausewitz says, pinching his nose.

‘My Great Society Program,’ LBJ-you says. ‘It’s really cool. It got like racial equality and Civil Rights and stuff!’

‘That’s a domestic policy.’ Clausewitz says, hoping he gets his point across.

‘Yes, but I cannot distract people from this program. If I fess up what mess I made in Asia, they will never pass it. I might even get in trouble with Congress, so I keep things from them, like the fact that we are at war.’

At this point, Clausewitz looks like he’s about to pass out.

‘So you mean your domestic policy influences your military strategy?’

‘Yeah.’ LBJ-you says, not sure where this is going.

‘Let me say this again, very slowly. Your MILITARY actions ABROAD are bound by what you’re doing DOMESTICALLY? As in, you’re limiting your war because of your domestic policies?’

‘Well, when you put it like that, it sounds stupid.’ McN says petulantly.

‘That’s because this is stupid and will end in a quagmire war that will destroy all faith in government and create long-lasting knock-on effects in American Society.’ Clausewitz says. ‘Also, your hair looks stupid. Clausewitz out.’


Sometimes it’s good to start at the end or, at least, in the middle. I got thrown into the Viet Nam War by ‘The Things They Carried‘, and I followed the rabbit hole with “Born on the Fourth of July‘, which made me realize how much anger this war caused, and then Caputo’s biography ‘A Rumor of War‘, which was close to the beginning (he was part of the first ground troops put into combat), but not quite. Then I read “My Lai“, and saw where it all ended – in a massacre and a cover-up, and I started to realize just how much pain and mistrust this war caused, and I decided to go to the beginning. Because causing all this pain and tragedy, the men behind this war surely must have been villains, or at the very least very convinced that they were doing the right thing.

And then I read “Dereliction of Duty“, and realized that neither was the case. Sure, McNamara and his boys were villainous, in the way that people who plan wars with nonchalance and hubris always are. They thought war was just another playground for managerial principles (which later led to the infamous Kill Counts, but that’s another topic.)

So they weren’t evil, not more evil than other people throughout the ages who found themselves in positions of power and convinced they were smarter than the ones who came before them.

They were, quite simply, in over their head, and they didn’t know it. Hannah Arendt talks about the banality of evil, and I think that applies to McNamara and LBJ as well – they didn’t want a war, but by their actions, they got one, and everyone else had to pay for it.


War from the Ground Up” by Emile Simpson talks about ‘Strategic Dialogue and 21st Century Combat as Politics – this book will tell you why the “Graduated Pressure” Concept was bound to fail from the start. What Simpson (a British Captain who fought in Afghanistan) understands, and what McNamara never did, is that military actions don’t just send a message to the enemy, but also to the bystander and the population, and it is those two groups that define victory and defeat in modern wars.

Rumours of War‘ by Philip Caputo – as mentioned above, Caputo was part of the first contingent of Marines sent to Vietnam. It’s weird to read ‘Dereliction of Duty’, knowing that the decisions taken by characters in one book will affect the characters in another.

Other thought – the fact that the US could go to war almost by accident shows the abundance of the Executive Branch. Or, put another way, it shows how weak the other institutions, especially Congress, are when it comes to war powers. Not a comforting thought.

And finally – In case you didn’t despise McNamara enough yet – let me introduce you to ‘McNamara’s Morons‘. This was a plan established by McNamara, everyone’s favorite wartime criminal, to take men of low IQs, train them in the army, and then send them to Vietnam. I’m gonna give you a moment to realize what you just read. This was an actual thing, and it actually happened, and it is so cruel it makes me cheer for the man who once threw McN overboard a boat.

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