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A New Storm on the Pentagon's Horizon?

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One particular cloud on the horizon might be no bigger than a fist right now, but everyone in the Pentagon knows that this cloud could explode with reputation-shattering thunder and lightning. That cloud has a name: H.R. McMaster.

On PBS' "Washington Week in Review" show earlier this evening, John Hendren, military correspondent for NPR, was asked about the "generals' revolt" against Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. You know, the six retired generals whose picture appeared on the front page of Friday's New York Times: all have criticized Rumsfeld's handling of the Iraq war and called for his resignation. Hendren and the other panelists speculated that additional generals might soon be climbing on the anti-Rumsfeld bandwagon. But why now? Why speak up more than three years after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom? Hendren said that one reason the top brass might be positioning themselves against Rumsfeld is that they're worried that H.R. McMaster is writing another book.

H.R. who? He's not exactly a household name, but it's safe to say that every senior officer in the US Army, and probably in the entire Defense Department, knows exactly who H.R. McMaster is. He is the author of a 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. Zeroing on 1965, the hinge year of escalation for the Vietnam War, McMaster wrote in his conclusion, "Lyndon Johnson, with the assistance of Robert S. McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had set the stage for America's disaster in Vietnam." Hot stuff, especially since "dereliction of duty" rings bells inside the armed services; it is, after all, a specific term of legal art, punishable according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The book was one long indictment. It had zero legal force, but maximum moral force.

Even hotter was the identity of McMaster. He was no college professor or foreign service officer. A 1984 graduate of West Point, he held a combat command in the 1991 Gulf War and, at the time of his authorship, was an active-duty Army officer. Yet even so, he was fierce in his criticism of two top Army men, Gen. Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff. They were among the "five silent men"--the five being the joint chiefs as a body--whom McMaster savaged.

It's important to note that McMaster was not writing as a dove. His book begins from the proposition that Vietnam was winnable--if it had been fought the right way. And the right way, in the author's view, was the all-out mobilization of the US military. But that's not what President Johnson wanted; LBJ wanted guns (not losing Vietnam) but he wanted butter (the Great Society and low-tax domestic prosperity) even more. And so the Joint Chiefs put aside their doubts about the military strategy and saluted the Commander-in-Chief's decision; none of them resigned in protest. Here's McMaster on one of the Chiefs: "Harold Johnson also went along with the president's decision, even though he knew that the failure to mobilize was a prescription for disaster both for his service and for the war. He also recognized that the decision to obscure the cost of the war was based on the president's desire to keep Vietnam 'very, very low key' in favor of Great Society legislation.'" But the general described himself as "tongue tied" during his tenure as Army chief of staff, 1964-1968. As a result, in McMaster's telling, the Army plunged into a no-win war, leaving Harold Johnson to "preside over the disintegration of the Army." Dereliction leading to disintegration: those were serious charges for one junior officer to hurl at his senior predecessors.

But here's what's hottest of all. Nearly a decade after the publication of his book, H.R. McMaster is still in the US Army; to its credit, the military has often made room for iconoclasts in its ranks. So despite McMaster's strong words--or perhaps because of them--he's been promoted; he's now a bird colonel. Indeed, he is on duty in Iraq right now, commanding the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. Reporters know exactly who he is, but so far at least, he has said nothing that might shake things up. And who knows, maybe he never will.

But the last time H.R. McMaster raised his public voice, he raised it in anger, and the Pentagon was rocked, as if it had been hit by an electrical storm.

And now, according to one on-the-scene reporter, the storm is gathering once again. And many top officers are scrambling to position themselves so that they can ride it out without getting blasted.