Wearing civilian clothes and standing just 10 paces from the entrance to the National Infantry Museum’s Vietnam gallery, Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster outlined the political failures and lack of military leadership during the conflict in a lecture to more than 170 people Tuesday night.
McMaster, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Ft. Benning, was speaking as part of the museum’s ongoing lecture series. As an Army major, he published “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.”
The book was based on the research McMaster did for his doctoral thesis at the University of North Carolina.
McMaster described how in 1964 Johnson as president was not focused on winning a war, but rather his domestic issues. And how McNamara, the secretary of defense, and his principal advisers viewed the war as “business management problem.”
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“They didn’t understand war and warfare,” McMaster said, “and how war unleashes a psychological dynamic that defies any kind of business management approach to the problem.”
McMaster’s book is highly critical of the advice given to the president by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
McMaster, who graduated from West Point in 1984, wrote his thesis after returning from the first Gulf War.
Ret. Col. Ralph Puckett, a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame who lives in Columbus, served one tour in Vietnam in 1967 and ’68. He read McMaster’s book shortly after it was published in 1997.
“When it first came out, I never thought he would make it to lieutenant colonel,” said Puckett, who, like McMaster, graduated from West Point.
“He was talking the truth, and he was right on target.”
Years later when McMaster became commander of Fort Benning, Puckett invited the general into his home for dinner. Puckett pulled out his ragged, highlighted copy of “Dereliction of Duty” and asked McMaster to sign it.
“That book should have been a career ender, but it wasn’t,” Puckett said. “And it didn’t end his career because of him. He’s an outstanding officer, brilliant, well-educated, physically courageous and morally courageous.”
Ret. Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza sat through McMaster’s lecture. Cavezza also survived two tours of Vietnam, including being seriously wounded.
He pointed out that McMaster’s history lesson on the Vietnam leadership void is based in fact.
“How do you fault a guy presenting something he’s documented as well as he has this?” Cavezza said. “The critical part of this is he doesn’t wander off into speculation.”
McMaster’s research came at a time when tapes and documentation on Vietnam was being released and many of the people involved were still alive and able to talk about it.
McMaster said the lessons of Vietnam are important in historical context.
“Vietnam also serves as a reminder that the most dramatic in technological advantages can not compensate for severe deficiencies in policy and strategy,” McMaster said. “... But we cannot expect the history of Vietnam or any history, really, to provide us with clear, simple answers to today’s problems. But what the study of history can do, should do, must do, is help us ask the right questions and hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past and make better decisions.”