Robert McNamara: An appreciation … of sorts

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones

McNamara, dead today at 93, embodied The American Century.

Born two years after the start of World War I, he got his MBA from Harvard in 1937, in World War II he served in the Air Force in the Pacific Campaign, became president of Ford in 1960 – when that was still something to aspire to – then secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during both the Cuba Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, finally president of the World Bank. He was neither Zelig nor Forrest Gump – he was in the foreground of the pictures Gump and Zelig snuck into.

He received – justly – a lot of blame for Vietnam. This is the man who, on his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962 said “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” While McNamara had clear doubts about the war he lacked the courage of his convictions. He was unable to convince President Johnson – who also knew the war was unwinnable – to change his policies. He was unwilling to commit apostasy and tell the US public what he knew to be true.

Without setting any of that aside, let us acknowledge one thing: the war could have been a lot worse without McNamara.

Vietnam was a fiasco in large part because it was unwinnable. The US sent troops to try to preserve a fiction: the “Republic” of South Vietnam. It sent soldiers to fight over something that was of no importance to the nation whatsoever. The fall of South Vietnam to the Communists – who were certainly despotic and brutal – meant nothing to the US. At least the French had been fighting for a revenue-producing colony. As Yeats put it in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

While Vietnam was a fiasco, at least – and I say this without irony or sarcasm – it was a well-run fiasco. McNamara, a brilliant logistician and administrator, saw to it that the troops were fed , armed, deployed, medically cared for and treated in as professional a manner as was possible. The mail was delivered on time to the soldiers, sailors and airmen. Let no one underestimate how important that is. If you think this is not a major accomplishment then look at our two current wars. Because Iraq was run from the White House by people with no idea of what was needed to run a war:

  • The wrong troops were sent to do the wrong jobs, thus the tragedy of Abu-Gharaib – a prisoner of war camp run by military police with no training or experience in running a prison.
  • Troops were sent into combat with inadequate supplies of water, body armor, ammunition and God know what else.
  • Soldiers were forced to weld metal plates onto vehicles in an attempt to give them the armor needed.
  • Because of a political decision overruling the military’s recommended troop requirements, the same units were and are repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – whether or not they are combat ready and, at the same time, further degrading the combat readiness they already had.

Vietnam, by comparison, was renowned (and sometimes reviled) as one of the most over-supplied conflicts in history. In addition to those basic things like ammo and water, units in the field were even provided with everything from beer to ice cream. (As ice cream creates thirst rather than sakes it, this was a very dubious benefit.) McNamara stepped down as secretary of defense in 1968 and within four years the US Armed Forces were falling apart in Vietnam.

Also to McNamara’s credit – he took responsibility for his actions and mistakes. In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:

McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were “wrong, terribly wrong” to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn President Johnson around.

He never said history would vindicate him or that he was just following orders.

In Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary Fog of War, McNamara became human for the first time for many people. During it he discusses Vietnam and the formative World War II incidents that shaped him. McNamara served under Gen. Curtis LeMay, who lead the bombing campaign against Japan. He quotes LeMay as saying  that had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Despite all that happened in Vietnam, I suspect that type of action was what McNamara was trying to avoid.

In one well-publicized incident, [McNamara] rejected a list of bombing targets that the military officers wanted to hit, including targets near Hanoi and other civilian population centers. The joint chiefs off staff went over his head to Johnson, and the president authorized the strikes.

It is easy to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that certainly was the case here. However it is important to remember and learn from those intentions. The failure to live up to them had terrible costs for the US, Vietnam and Robert McNamara.


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