We’re told in school that government leaders have unique insight
and dedication regarding the “public interest.” While people in theprivate sector can be motivated by profit, prestige, and even vanity andfoolishness, public servants are just that: leaders intent on achieving thegeneral welfare. They are not subject to the same temptations as meremortals.
That civics-book picture has lost some of its luster in recentyears. Scandals have disabused most of us of a certain naivete. Moreover,a more accurate picture of reality has been given a theoretical frameworkby the “public choice” school of political economy, whose impressiveliterature explains that political and private actors are the same kind ofpeople, although they face radically different incentives, making politicaldecision-making suspect.
The conduct of foreign policy has been the last place to whichthose insights have been applied. But H.R. McMaster’s book *Dereliction ofDuty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam*makes clear that the theory holds there as well. You would think that theU.S. government would enter a war only after careful consideration of themorality and costs. You would also assume that the actual strategy andtactics of the war would be based on the best advice of the specialists inthat field — members of the armed forces. That’s what they weresupposedly hired for.
Well, it doesn’t work that way. We’ve long known that the decisionto fight the war had nothing to do with moral considerations orcalculations of cost in money and lives. The policymakers got involved inVietnam, first, to help the French colonialists, then to aid a corrupt,brutal Vietnamese ally in the south. The line about saving the Vietnameseor the whole world from communism was sheer propaganda.
What McMaster’s book does is show that decision-making about howthe war would be fought was as poor as the decision to fight it. Usingformerly classified material and confirming what others have charged, heexplains that the military decisions were in no real sense “military.”Johnson and McNamara didn’t ask for advice on how to reach their goals.Rather, they maneuvered the Joint Chiefs into ratifying their preconceivedpolicies. They knew just which buttons to push: they played on irrelevantinterservice rivalries to achieve the ends they sought.
As McMaster puts it, “Everyone — the president, his closestcivilian advisers, *and* the Joint Chiefs — had taken the path of leastresistance.”
Let’s pause on this. Young men were to be sent, often againsttheir will, to a jungle 10,000 miles away to fight an “enemy” with whomthose men had no personal beef. Our political leaders’ decisions aboutsending them and what they were to do when they got there were the resultsof nothing that we would wish to call honest deliberation. The leaderstreated American citizens like guinea pigs in a deadly experiment inthird-world warfare. By any moral accounting, that makes the U.S.government as much the killer of those men as the Vietcong or the NorthVietnamese army. Moreover, it suggests that foreign affairs do not deserveto be regarded as essentially different from domestic matters. Each domainis a laboratory for social engineering of one sort or another by ambitiousleaders.
McMaster doesn’t let the Joint Chiefs off the hook as pitifulvictims of Johnson’s and McNamara’s intrigue. Instead of being thedetached public servants we are led to believe they are, these officerswere more interested in promoting their respective services, blind to theconsequences of their military politicking. An army request forhelicopters could be lost in the mire because the other services werejealous.
The military is obviously as much a bureaucracy as any other partof the government. We should expect the same quality of decision-makingfrom it as we get from the departments of education or energy — only moredeadly.
The upshot is that in foreign affairs, the civilian and militaryleaders are subject to the same foibles and perverse incentives as otherpoliticians and bureaucrats. The awe with which people are struck when itcomes to the military is wholly misplaced.
If we start thinking of war as just another Washington program, wemight develop a sounder attitude toward foreign adventurism and perhapsprevent future catastrophes.