Mil­i­tary scholar Phillip Carter says the new na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser can bring the lessons of his book on Viet­nam to the White House

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @carter_pe Phillip Carter is a for­mer Army of­fi­cer and Iraq vet­eran who di­rects the veter­ans re­search pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity.

Can of­fi­cers ar­gue with the White House?

For a gen­er­a­tion af­ter los­ing the Viet­nam War, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary soothed it­self with a “stabbed in the back” nar­ra­tive: If not for med­dling politi­cians, in­tru­sive jour­nal­ists and a spine­less pub­lic, the mil­i­tary would have won the war. In his book, “Dere­lic­tion of Duty,” H.R. McMaster (then a young Army ma­jor) de­mol­ished this pal­lia­tive myth, care­fully us­ing his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence to show how mil­i­tary leaders failed their troops and their coun­try by re­main­ing silent — or worse — dur­ing the es­ca­la­tion in South­east Asia. Along with other vol­umes fo­cused on the con­duct of the war, McMaster’s work helped re­al­lo­cate blame for Amer­ica’s fail­ures in Viet­nam to those in uni­form who de­served their share of cul­pa­bil­ity.

In the book, McMaster care­fully avoided many of the larger ques­tions raised by his schol­ar­ship, such as whether mil­i­tary dis­sent might have al­tered the course of the Viet­nam War — both as a mat­ter of good his­tor­i­cal trade­craft and ca­reer savvy. This past week, McMaster, now a three-star gen­eral and bona fide hero of the first and sec­ond wars in Iraq, was tapped by Pres­i­dent Trump to be na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. The big ques­tions he didn’t take on in print 20 years ago now loom large for him and the White House: Can an in­su­lar and politi­cized team make ef­fec­tive na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy? Should mil­i­tary of­fi­cers speak up when they see pol­icy go­ing off track? Would it make a dif­fer­ence if they did? And how should civil­ian of­fi­cials en­cour­age dis­sent from the Pen­tagon?

“Dere­lic­tion of Duty” painstak­ingly dis­sects four ma­jor de­ci­sions be­tween 1963 and 1965 that led the United States deeper into Viet­nam. McMaster shows how mil­i­tary chiefs failed re­peat­edly to raise dis­sent­ing views about es­ca­la­tion, un­able to pen­e­trate the in­ner sanc­tums of the White House and mean­ing­fully change the course of the war. In one anec­dote, McMaster de­scribes how Army Gen. Earle Wheeler told his staff that he planned to ob­ject to Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son’s de­ci­sion in 1965 to send more troops to Viet­nam without calling up ad­di­tional re­servists. But when asked di­rectly by John­son whether he agreed with the move, Wheeler silently nod­ded and in­di­cated his as­sent. Dere­lic­tion of duty, in­deed.

Part of the prob­lem lay in how both John F. Kennedy and John­son af­ter him re­lied on a small, in­su­lar, ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of po­lit­i­cal aides and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staffers to make de­ci­sions. This “ExComm” model worked well dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis; it broke down dur­ing the grind­ing years of war in Viet­nam. Kennedy dis­dained ad­vice from se­nior mil­i­tary leaders, in large part be­cause of his World War II ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as his ini­tial in­volve­ment with the ser­vice chiefs dur­ing the Bay of Pigs fi­asco and the mis­sile cri­sis. John­son trusted his po­lit­i­cal in­stincts more than the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. Re­gard­less of the cause, the ef­fect was the same: Se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers were cut out of the loop.

McMaster now as­sumes the role played by McGe­orge Bundy in his book, a dif­fer­ent one than he has pre­pared for dur­ing his life­time of mil­i­tary ser­vice. But much of the back­ground is sim­i­lar. Like Kennedy and John­son, Trump has cho­sen to make de­ci­sions by re­ly­ing on a small, in­su­lar team of po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers. McMaster knows, even if his new col­leagues don’t, that there is a bet­ter way to or­ga­nize the White House and en­gage the brass in mak­ing na­tional se­cu­rity de­ci­sions.

The first chal­lenge fac­ing McMaster is to build a White House that works bet­ter in its next four years than it did dur­ing its first four weeks. So far, his re­ported first steps sug­gest he is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, by qui­etly meet­ing with the rank and file to learn how Trump’s oper­a­tion runs be­fore sug­gest­ing changes. Among his likely ini­tial moves is to sug­gest the dis­as­sem­bly of Stephen K. Ban­non’s Strate­gic Ini­tia­tives Group, or at least keep it away from na­tional se­cu­rity. The Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil is the pres­i­dent’s spe­cial staff for na­tional se­cu­rity, and there’s room in the White House for only one.

Sec­ond, McMaster must teach Trump to be more dis­ci­plined on na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ters — in­clud­ing his tweets, be­cause ev­ery word from a pres­i­dent is a state­ment of U.S. pol­icy. McMaster must also per­suade the pres­i­dent and his top aides to lis­ten to mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers and in­clude them in the most im­por­tant and sen­si­tive de­ci­sions, such as the draft­ing of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders on im­mi­gra­tion. En­larg­ing the de­ci­sion cir­cle and tak­ing in more data may slow down cer­tain pro­cesses, but it is likely to yield bet­ter results, es­pe­cially for high-risk moves such as the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions raid in Ye­men that Trump or­dered one week into his term. This, too, will be eas­ier said than done, given the in­su­lar­ity and cliquish­ness demon­strated by the Trump team to date.

Third, and most sim­i­lar to the prob­lems that his book de­scribed, McMaster must build an ecosys­tem that en­ables and en­cour­ages gen­er­als to speak up — and dis­sent when nec­es­sary and ap­pro­pri­ate. This goes be­yond in­still­ing dis­ci­pline in the pres­i­dent and his staff or en­sur­ing that the right peo­ple are in the room for de­ci­sions. McMaster must ac­tively prod Cab­i­net of­fi­cials and se­nior mil­i­tary leaders to ex­press them­selves, and he must pro­tect them when their can­dor up­sets the White House po­lit­i­cal team. This may be his great­est chal­lenge, be­cause of the pres­i­dent’s thin skin. Trump has shown a predilec­tion for lash­ing out against dis­senters — this month, the ad­min­is­tra­tion fired a se­nior Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil di­rec­tor for crit­i­ciz­ing White House pol­icy and process.

None­the­less, McMaster must find ways to en­cour­age the par­tic­i­pa­tion (and some­times dis­sent) he craved in “Dere­lic­tion of Duty,” be­cause a healthy civil-mil­i­tary dia­lec­tic makes for bet­ter na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy. McMaster will know this bet­ter than any­one in the room, based on his re­search and his com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our post-9/11 wars suf­fered in their con­cep­tion and ex­e­cu­tion from un­healthy civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tions, il­lus­trated most clearly by the end­less, dys­func­tional de­bates over troop lev­els. Those de­bates boiled over in highly pub­lic episodes, such as Gen. Eric Shin­seki’s 2003 con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony about how sta­bi­liz­ing Iraq would re­quire hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops, or Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal’s leaked as­sess­ment that it would re­quire tens of thou­sands more troops to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan. McMaster has in­her­ited the chal­lenge of im­prov­ing these re­la­tions for these wars and for our next con­flicts.

So­lic­it­ing dis­sent from se­nior mil­i­tary leaders — par­tic­u­larly those who serve atop a pro­fes­sion­al­ized all-vol­un­teer force — won’t be easy. By ne­ces­sity, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary cul­ture em­pha­sizes duty, loy­alty and re­spect for the chain of com­mand. Dis­sent and in­tro­spec­tion have their place, but these val­ues are sub­or­di­nated to mission ac­com­plish­ment. Fur­ther, mil­i­tary of­fi­cers learn, right­fully, that their role in our na­tion is to obey civil­ian author­ity, con­sis­tent with their oath to sup­port and de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion. Although of­fi­cers can (and do) weigh in on pol­icy through the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil process, the pro­fes­sional ethic at the Pen­tagon has in­stilled a norm that their in­puts are of­ten muted and def­er­en­tial. As my Ge­orge­town law school col­league Rosa Brooks noted last year in The Wash­ing­ton Post, of­fi­cers may chal­lenge un­law­ful or­ders, but they will prob­a­bly not dis­obey un­wise or dis­agree­able ones, nor pub­licly dis­sent. Ul­ti­mately, our pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary leaders are likely to salute and fol­low or­ders from the pres­i­dent; that’s what they swear to do.

For­tu­nately, McMaster has al­ready helped his cause. His book helped nudge a sig­nif­i­cant evolution of the Amer­i­can civil-mil­i­tary ethic af­ter Viet­nam. Be­fore that war, most mil­i­tary of­fi­cers be­lieved in the model ar­tic­u­lated by po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton: Civil­ians made the big pol­icy de­ci­sions; gen­er­als saluted, took their or­ders and fo­cused on the “man­age­ment of vi­o­lence.” Since Viet­nam, mil­i­tary and civil­ian leaders have come to em­brace an “un­equal di­a­logue,” in the words of na­tional se­cu­rity scholar (and prom­i­nent “never Trump”-er) Eliot Co­hen. These days, se­nior mil­i­tary leaders, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, di­plo­mats and oth­ers par­tic­i­pate in a give-and-take be­hind the scenes, ul­ti­mately in­form­ing and shap­ing the fi­nal de­ci­sions made by elected and ap­pointed po­lit­i­cal leaders.

McMaster stops short in his book of sug­gest­ing that mil­i­tary of­fi­cers know best or that they should dis­sent pub­licly when they dis­agree with pol­icy. He also stu­diously avoids spec­u­la­tion that mil­i­tary dis­sent would have mean­ing­fully changed the course of the Viet­nam War. Now, he no longer has the lux­ury of fo­cus­ing sim­ply on the archival ev­i­dence. McMaster must lev­er­age the his­tory he wrote so com­pellingly about. He, more than most, knows how to do things bet­ter this time.



A woman car­ries a child to safety as U.S. Marines storm the vil­lage of My Son in Viet­nam in April 1965. Na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster’s book, “Dere­lic­tion of Duty,” ex­plains how mil­i­tary leaders failed in that war by not ex­press­ing dis­sent about its es­ca­la­tion.

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