Beware the White Knight McMaster

February 23, 2017–Do you hear the swooning? The country is almost heaving sighs of relief over President Trump’s appointment of Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster to preside over the National Security Council (NSC) staff in place of the departed Michael T. Flynn. The oohs! and aaahs! are audible. Suddenly the perception is that Mr. Trump is enlisting an adult to run his inside-the-White House national security staff, so rationality will prevail. The gossip is also that the NSC structure Trump laid down in one of this early presidential directives will be revised (again) to bring back the director of national intelligence, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA chieftain. Before we go too far, though, I want to register a “Not so fast!”

Part of the continuing problem is structural. What President Trump did, long before appointing McMasters as national security adviser, is create competing centers of power at the White House. None of them is the NSC staff. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, obviously has The Donald’s ear any time he needs it. Strategist Stephen Bannon reflects the political base of Trump’s power, and he has an agenda. He will not be crossed, or dismissed, unless the president decides on radical surgery and holds on to the tiller come what may. Reince Priebus mirrors the Republican party hierarchy that Mr. Trump needs to govern. He has an agenda too. For all of them the national security adviser is a target, someone to enlist to further their goals. Some objectives of the assorted White House power centers may overlap but others do not–and no amount of overlapping is going to do away with the equally thorny competition among the potentates for who gets the credit for each thing they do.

From this point of view Mike Flynn actually had an advantage. As an ideologue on his own account, one whose opinions were close to Trump’s, Flynn almost had the jets to stand up to the policy predators. General McMaster lacks such preordained positions. He might have strong prescriptions for strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but across the Trump administration policy spectrum McMaster has an empty file cabinet waiting to be filled. Expect to see more, rather than less, engagement from the predators.

Much of the relief bandied about with General McMaster’s appointment centers on the historical conclusions he drew in a Vietnam history published in 1997, Dereliction of Duty. Many see McMaster as finding the military leaders at the time of Vietnam as wanting–failing in their duty to tell truth to power and kowtowing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) agenda by keeping their silence and not telling him his strategy was flawed. That construction is mistaken. General McMaster actually delivered a much more conventional interpretation in which LBJ, the military’s civilian leaders, and the White House staff shared responsibility. The secretary of defense at the time, Robert McNamara, in this version of history, moved from distrusting the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to misleading them, and McNamara plus LBJ created the illusion that decisions to attack North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself. According to this logic the course led to planning for failure, and then a war without direction.

I critiqued McMaster’s analysis in 2009 in my book Unwinnable War  where I noted a number of things off with that construction. For one, LBJ’s views on Vietnam were opaque, and varied from day to day. McMaster cited only the telephone conversations where Johnson wanted no war, not those where LBJ spoke of “touching up” Hanoi. It is true that Robert McNamara rode herd on the JCS, but the charge the military were derelict is thin. Quite the opposite is true: every time they were asked for an opinion the Chiefs recited a litany that included cross-border operations into Laos, bombing, mining, and ground troops in great numbers. That litany would be recited as early as the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964, and over time they added more elements. In 1967, when Congress held hearings on the bombing, the military openly and publicly denounced McNamara’s approach. As for the directionless war, there is no evidence the Joint Chiefs had any more innovative a military strategy in mind than did the president.

Meanwhile, senior military leaders were well aware of the political impact of their public views. Then–as now–the military were guarded and diffident about what they said. H. R. McMaster should have been well attuned to that aspect, which, at the time he was writing, had most recently been demonstrated in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Joint Chiefs chairman Colin L. Powell had kept silent his differences with then-defense secretary Dick Cheney. What goes around comes around–in the prelude to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki did openly express a different view from his political superiors–and he was promptly let go. The diffident silence which McMaster found so objectionable when looking back at Vietnam is the norm, not the exception.

In the Trump administration today the military has a different planetary configuration. It is not only General McMaster as security adviser, but also General James Mattis as secretary of defense, and General John F. Kelly as secretary for homeland security. Other military men occupy numerous positions on the NSC staff, including McMaster’s current deputy. Some of the public’s relief at the McMaster appointment actually stems from the thought these officers will be the “adults” who rein in the outlandish proposals of the president and his henchmen, but that is unlikely for two reasons: the norm of deferring to the political leadership (reinforced in McMaster’s case, by the way, because he remains on active duty, and therefore subject to regulations about what can be said about [and to] a chief executive); and the limited knowledge and experience of these military men outside their chosen profession. Meanwhile McMaster will be under intense pressure to conform to the views of the various White House power centers.

The McMaster appointment does not get citizens out of the woods. President Trump’s activities will continue to provoke and  distress. A more likely role for the military men in this presidency–as General Mattis has already shown–is to sooth nerves shaken up by the president. We’ll see.

Hello Again!

January 29, 2016–Apologies to all readers of this space. Holidays, deadlines, snow storms, and other fast-breaking developments have diverted me one after another. Time after time I’ve wanted to come over here and put in commentary about things that have happened, but every minute it seems something else demands my immediate attention. I now think I’ve got things squared away–so look forward to seeing new material pronto!

I’m Back !

March 15, 2015–Over the past weeks I’ve regretted the pressing concerns that kept me away from the website. Completing an assortment of projects that actually pay money was paramount. In the meantime so much has happened that I wanted to talk about. The latest ISIS outrages. Continuing hysteria on terrorism over here. Renewed secrecy issues. Extended lack of accountability for the CIA torture. The pending CIA reorganization. It’s all a big load! I’ve got a couple of trips to speak in coming days but I’ll also have more time to spend here. Stay tuned for fresh posts!

What is NAL/Caliber?

January 23, 2015–For those of you looking for the latest commentary, sorry. I’ve been out of circulation on a deadline, and now I need to reorganize to take up the next project. In the meantime I noticed a reference on the web to a question someone had actually asked me just the other day. So I’m just putting up a quick note to answer that question.

“NAL/Caliber” is a publisher. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s the gist of it. In the way of agglomeration in the publishing industry the back story is this: New American Library (NAL) is an old line publishing house. If I remember correctly they used to have two lines–or “imprints” as they are called in publishing. One published useful editions of classic books and was called the Modern Library. The other did popular paperbacks and was called Signet. NAL also did some books under their own imprint.

At some point before I worked with them, NAL was acquired by Penguin Books–my theory is it was for their classics line. Penguin continued to run NAL as an imprint. NAL/Caliber is a further subset–an imprint that specializes in popular military history. I’ve published two books with NAL/Caiber–Islands of Destiny  (2013 paperback, 2012 hardcover) and Normandy Crucible.  There is a sequel to Islands of Destiny in progress.

Naturally this may all change. Penguin has been acquired in its turn by the publisher Random House. What the final disposition may be I cannot say.

 

Amazon v. Authors United

August 11, 2014–It’s always uncomfortable–and, here, frightening–to be caught in between two giants locked in deadly embrace. Here I refer to the ongoing fight between the book (and everything else) -seller Amazon and the publisher Hachette. Yesterday’s New York Times contained an enormous ad from an ad hoc coalition of writers, “Authors United,” with a page of explication and a full one of names of those who had signed on. I wrestled with whether to sign on to the Authors United appeal, did not finally do so, and I want to take this opportunity to say why. Some things are being left out of the whole question, and that is really the central problem for writers today.

First, on the open letter from Authors United. Those who took the lead in organizing this move are absolutely right. It is intolerable that authors are caught in the middle of a fight between massive corporations–and outrageous that this happens not through any action of authors but entirely at the whim of one of the offenders here, Amazon. On the other hand, the Authors United letter does not go far enough, meekly “encouraging” Amazon “in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.” There is no easily glimpsed solution here, but Authors United fails to convey the degree to which this dispute actually harms the whole profession of letters.

Authors depend on book sales for a living. For years sales have been decreasing for a host of reasons, among them the rise of electronic media, including the transformation of libraries into media centers; but primarily readers’ adoption of electronic formats for obtaining their books and periodicals. Libraries’ creation of consortia with similar institutions is a result of both lean budgets in hard times and also the drive to free dollars to acquire different kinds of products. The consolidation among publishers, distributors, and bookstores means fewer outlets selling our books. Greater difficulty finding them on sale translates into fewer sales. –And there is an elephant in the closet: we are publishing more things,  in more formats, than ever before. That too contributes to reduced sales. Authors are already hurting.

Amazon has been a prime mover in this whole process. It progressively absorbed much of the sales volume, putting increasing pressure on the retail trade network. That the phrase “bricks and mortar” has been used as a pejorative for stores already suggests the extent to which this penetration of the marketplace has gone. The market is evolving toward a cartel or even monopoly framework with just a handful of outlets. In that climate, to have a seller like Amazon deny products to customers (not accepting pre-orders, slowing deliveries, not discounting [as it does do with everything else], and suggesting alternatives to the named items) is more than hurtful to authors.

Amazon’s dispute is over the percentage discounts at which publishers like Hachette provide it with product to sell. Unfortunately the author stands to be hurt at both ends: Publishers already acquire books from authors with contracts that take percentage royalties, small as they are, and minimize them in a blinding array of ways, from pass-alongs of shipping costs to royalty reductions for items sold at given discounts. Typically a publisher’s sales report is so littered with subcategories of sales justifying reduced royalties as to be barely intelligible. A favorite ploy is to base royalty payments on “net” rather than “gross” income. Every penny that Amazon squeezes out of the publishers translates into both reduced income and reduced rates for authors.

Either way the Amazon-Hachette fight turns out, authors and readers lose. Authors lose because they are being targeted directly. Readers lose because the market consolidation has reduced their means of access to one or a few outlets, and if that one suddenly refused to provide the product they are out of luck. I have a bad feeling about this.

Dien Bien Phu: “The Fruit are Ripe”

May 8, 2014–French shortwave radio in Tonkin broadcast the phrase “The Fruit are Ripe” at 1:05 PM of May 8, 1954 (1:05 AM on the American east coast). The message was an “open code,” of the same sort the British had sent over the BBC in World War II to alert various Resistance networks on the continent. The French military commander in Tonkin, Major General Rene Cogny, had agreed to send this message when he was certain of the fall of the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu. French army units in Laos had been warned, in messages dropped to them by scout planes, to listen for the open code message.

The Tonkin radio was actually late–the French at Dien Bien Phu had stopped shooting around 5:30 in the afternoon of the 7th. Like much else about this decisive battle, the reasons for the discrepancy remain obscure. Perhaps Cogny was reluctant to acknowledge final defeat. Or again, there had been a last-minute plan for a sally of the fittest remaining French troops and maybe the Tonkin command, hoping that action had taken place, was trying to make time for the desperate sortie.

“The Fruit are Ripe” began a sort of delicate dance with many movements. One was among the French units in Laos, alerted to be on the watch for from Dien Bien Phu. Seventy-eight men made it to join either the Franco-Laotian regulars and commandos, or the Hmong partisans strung in an arc along the Laotian side of the border. Remarkably, one survivor had also walked out of another French entrenched camp, Na San, when that had been abandoned in the summer of 1953.

Another dance movement was the Viet Minh pursuit. General Giap wanted to regroup his main forces closer to Hanoi for a final offensive–but he also wished to follow up into Laos. He ordered Viet Minh who had not been at the battle–and some who were–into northern Laos. That meant a race between the French perched in their arc and the Viet Minh pursuers.

It was an irony of Dien Bien Phu that the worst French wounded became the luckiest survivors. With but a handful of doctors and medical personnel, and almost no drugs, the Viet Minh were in no position to treat French wounded. Meanwhile French medical staff, led by the redoubtable Doctor Paul Grauwin, shared their drug supplies with the Viets and helped their wounded. Together with the Viet Minh’s chief surgeon, General Giap decided to make a deal. In exchange for French medicines and medical assistance, they would re-open the airfield at Dien Bien Phu. The French air force could fly in medical supplies and evacuate the wounded. Some 858 seriously wounded soldiers left the entrenched camp that way.

In yet another United States connection to Dien Bien Phu, many of those French wounded would immediately be evacuated to France by the U.S. Air Force. It happened this way: There had been a secret U.S. airlift of paratroops and French Navy pilots called Project “Blue Star”–you can read all about it in Operation Vulture. Blue Star had used huge C-124 transport planes–the C-5As of that day–to deliver the French troops to what is now Da Nang. The Blue Star planes were still there when the smaller French Dakotas began to lift out the wounded from Dien Bien Phu. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a French appeal to carry the wounded home aboard the big American planes.

Thus ended the epic siege in the Vietnamese uplands.

No Salvation for the French at Dien Bien Phu

May 4, 2014–On this night sixty years ago, French commando units maintained position in Laos, in an arc to the south and southwest of Dien Bien Phu. These troops represented the leading edge of an overland relief attempt that French leaders cobbled together in a desperate effort to save their garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Captain Henri Loustau, chief of one of these commandos, kept a radio watch. At night his men could see the horizon lit by the flashes of explosions inside the mountain valley, and on the radio Loustau could hear the businesslike transmissions in which French officers in the entrenched camp reported the destruction of their strongpoints and the loss of their men.

Loustau’s commandos lacked the strength to fight their way into the fortress from the outside. And he represented the tip of a spear that was rather weak overall. You can read the full story of the desperate French rescue mission in the book Operation Vulture . In Laos the Expeditionary Corps had put together four battalions of troops for the main force. Loustau’s commandos were the equivalent of another battalion, hurriedly assembled and thrown into the fray late in April. There was also “Operation Desperado,” in which a couple of thousand Hmong partisans who were fighting for the French, pitched in to help the relief mission.

In the original French contingency plan the spearhead troops were supposed to be reinforced once they reached near to Dien Bien Phu with a fresh and battle-worthy paratroop force. But when the time came the paras had been sent into the entrenched camp itself. There were no men to join Loustau, and no planes to carry them if there had been. The Hmong partisans were bringing up the rear–they had gotten a late start because the French Expeditionary Corps had been reluctant to approve their participation. The battalions of regular troops in Laos had not been strong enough to get closer than the Nam Ou river valley, still nearly three dozen miles from the embattled entrenched camp. Villagers along the wayside told the French that a Viet Minh force three times their size was expected soon. The French decided to hold their positions and wait.

A certain number of survivors escaped the hell of Dien Bien Phu and made it far enough to join up with either the Hmong partisans or the French-Vietnamese commando groups. But these were individuals, there were no organized units, no break out, no salvation. General Giap and his Viet Minh revolutionaries were poised on the verge of complete victory.

Deepening Shadows at Dien Bien Phu

April 24, 2014–Today is the sixtieth anniversary of what is possibly the most controversial episode of the siege of Dien Bien Phu. That 1954 battle, which brought an end to the French colony of Indochina, had already been sputtering on for more than a month. The French had lost key positions and many soldiers. Some of the men were replaced by parachuted reinforcements but the lost strongpoints were gone–and with them much of the area within which the French air force needed to drop in paratroopers and supplies. Only yesterday in that history, April 23, 1954, one more disastrous counterattack showed just how dire the situation had become.

The episode concerned a strongpoint known as Huguette-1, which the Viet Minh army of General Vo Nguyen Giap had first pinched off, then basically starved out. Against the advice of his senior officers the French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, decided to use his last constituted reserve in an attempt to regain Huguette-1. That unit, the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, was in relatively good shape because it had arrived only recently, though in just two weeks at Dien Bien Phu the unit had lost nearly half its strength. The H-1 counterattack would be the first time the battalion had fought together in the battle. Major Hubert Liesenfeldt found his units late to reach their attack positions, making the preparatory air strike premature. An artillery bombardment was truncated due to the confusion. Then the redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard, coordinator of all counterattacks at the entrenched camp, discovered Liesenfeldt out of touch with some of his embattled assault companies because his radios were tuned to the wrong frequency. The venture collapsed.

All that is subtext to the controversy of April 24. By that day the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was in Paris and closeted with top French officials, who were in shock at the crisis of Dien Bien Phu. We have seen Dulles, just the other day in this space (“Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict,” April 19, 2014), trying to stiffen President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s resolve to intervene in this desperate French battle. Now, in company with French foreign minister Georges Bidault, Secretary Dulles supposedly asked, as they descended the stairs in between formal working sessions, “And if I gave you two atomic bombs for Dien Bien Phu?”

Needless to say the question of using nuclear weapons in this Vietnam battle has been disputed ever since. I don’t want to write too much at this sitting because I’d like to come back later today and post something about Putin and the Ukraine, but I’ll say here that the most thorough analysis you’ll find anywhere on the question of nuclear weapons and Dien Bien Phu is in my book Operation Vulture. Take a look at it.

Medal on the Jacket

April 19, 2014–Friends who saw the panel discussion from the San Antonio Book Festival that aired on C-SPAN 2 “Book News” this afternoon have asked just what medal I was wearing on my jacket that day. Here’s the answer.

In San Antonio the Book Festival kicks off a bigger celebration of community activism and social achievement. There are many medals, pins, and tokens–for  a whole range of different municipal activities apparently– that are worn at civic events during the celebration. The medal I’m wearing is from the San Antonio Public Library Foundation and it marks “Uniting and Inspiring Readers and Writers.” It was given to me before the event and I was pleased to support the San Antonio organizers.

Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict: War Powers and Dien Bien Phu

April 19, 2014–President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not an expert golfer but he was a dedicated one. Eisenhower had an area at the White House to practice his putt, regularly took time off to golf at the Burning Tree course, and he even took golfing vacations. Sixty years ago today, at the height of the Dien Bien Phu crisis, Ike was on one of those trips. He’d gone to Georgia, to the National Golf Club in Augusta, site of the PGA tournament. The president’s cottage at Augusta was called the “Little White House.” There Ike would experience one of the key moments of the Vietnam crisis.

President Eisenhower could hardly escape the action. A couple of days earlier his vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, had told an audience of media moguls that U.S. troops might well have to go fight in Vietnam. Ike wanted to help France, whose army was trapped at Dien Bien Phu, with its best units steadily losing strength. The situation was so dismal that men considered it good news when the New York Times could headline, “INCREASED RAINS SEEN SLOWING THE FIGHTING.” Nixon’s remarks were being interpreted as a trial balloon for U.S. intervention. Press inquiries flooded the Little White House. Soon after breakfast on April 19, 1954, Eisenhower telephoned Nixon, who worried the president would be furious at him for letting the cat out of the bag–officials had been trying to avoid mentioning that U.S. troops figured in the plans. But Ike was relaxed and told Mr. Nixon not to worry.

Eisenhower’s schemes to intervene at Dien Bien Phu might indeed involve American soldiers. At a minimum they included sailors and airmen. For nearly a month Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had been trying to create the conditions necessary for that intervention to go ahead. So far they had failed–British allies were opposed to a Vietnam intervention, while the French, despite their desperation, were leery of permitting the United States to have a big role in their war.

But Secretary Dulles had a formula to evade all obstacles. The Justice Department had worked up an extensive paper on presidential war powers as part of a government-wide study of Indochina intervention. Foster took that paper with him to visit the president on April 19. The two men would lunch at Augusta and mull over the Dien Bien Phu crisis.

The paper–like George W. Bush era Justice Department legal opinions on torture–was one of those documents that cobbled together lawyer language suitable to permit officials to do whatever they wanted. In this case the Justice paper relied on the “commander-in-chief clause” in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution to assert that the president could order U.S. troops into battle without a congressional declaration of war. At their lunch Secretary Dulles scoffed at the paper’s legalisms but took its argument–the heart of the matter, Foster told Ike, was that the U.S. government “must have the power of self-preservation . . . . If the danger was great and imminent and Congress unable to act quickly enough to avert the danger, the president would have to act alone.” Why anything about a crisis threatening a French army in Vietnam was a matter of self-preservation to the United States Dulles did not attempt to explain. He was a preacher-man and capable of sallies like this.

On April 19, 1954, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who saved the nation from war. For months Ike had been telling Congress he would not go into Indochina without getting its approval. Not only did Eisenhower feel bound by those political promises, he had just survived a congressional test of his foreign policy powers by a handful of votes–and would have lost if the Democratic Party, his opponents, had not rallied to his side. On April 19 Ike patted John Foster Dulles’s hand and told the secretary of state that as president he needed to carry out “the will of the people.” If not, the president warned, he could be impeached. As far as U.S. intervention to save Dien Bien Phu was concerned, the two men were still in the position of having to build a public consensus for war in Vietnam.

So passed another moment when the international crisis surrounding Dien Bien Phu could have pulled the United States into active fighting in Indochina a whole decade before this actually occurred. But Eisenhower and Dulles were not stymied by these developments. A few days later President Eisenhower made a political trip, swinging through New York and Kentucky in an effort to drum up support for intervention. There is much more to the story of America’s Dien Bien Phu. Read all about it in Operation Vulture.