I heard today of McNamara's death while listening to NPR and then to a rerun of an interview of the director of The Fog of War a 2004 documentary in which McNamara recounts his history with two wars, one involvement often overlooked by my generation and one involvement highly publicized during my early adult years.
Since we became belligerent first in rescuing Kuwait, then in Afghanistan searching poorly for Osama bin Laden, and finally fully engaged in Bush's war in Iraq, the memories of the Vietnam War and of Robert McNamara's role in it, have crept into my thinking and have shaped my philosophy about our military actions in other countries.
I was not an activist against the war, but I was not for it. I did not go to war using first an exemption and when the exemption expired, enlisting in the navy as a way to escape a draft that I was told would likely happen. I, of course, knew and befriended some who went to serve and certainly did not hold them in any way responsible for the sadness that war brought to the United States and Vietnam. I don't know how those friends felt about their service or rather about their thoughts prior to service. I am guessing some went because they believed that we had to stop Communism, some because they were conflicted because their fathers and uncles and aunts had served without protest or whining in WWII, some to escape problems at home, some because they had no other choice. Regardless of why any individual went off to Vietnam, I sit here today in absolute amazement that we learned nothing from our experiences there nor did we learn anything from McNamara or from his personal recollections of his actions as part of the administrations of two wars.
In World War II, McNamara served under general Curtis LeMay and helped plan the fire bombings of Tokyo and 67 other Japanese cities. He noted in an interview,
"In a single night we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians – men, women and children,” and the bombing accounted for the deaths of 50 to 90 percent of the people in 67 cities. In August of 1945, McNamara again figured in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which in four days accounted for the deaths of 270,00 people. In the documentary McNamara regrets that there never has been a national discussion about the rules of war and mulls over why there was no standard that made it right or wrong morally to burn to death 100,000 civilians in a single night. McNamara goes on to say, “LeMay said if we lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals, but what makes it immoral if you lose but not immoral if you win?” Sadly, this conversation occurred at the end of WWII about 20 years removed from our sortie into the politics and war in Vietnam.
McNamara experienced these extraordinary death rates and LeMay's comments, yet reappeared as Kennedy's and Johnson's Secretary of Defense where he went on to assist in orchestrating the deaths of 1-2 million Vietnamese, authorized the use of Agent orange, and ultimately was intimately involved with the deaths of 58, 000 U.S. soldiers not to mention all the other ill effects a nation suffers when it goes off to a war without full support of the people.
I do not know enough about to write a history of the actions that led up to the Vietnam War, but I do know it was a conflicted mess including Wilson's spurning of Ho Chi Minh and driving him to the teachings and influences of the Chinese and Russian totalitarians, some of the nastiest rulers the world has ever seen. A further mess was made of that situation by our support for Ngo Diem, a Vietnamese Catholic expatriate rushed by Senator Kennedy, Senator Johnson and Cardinal Spellman as our man in Vietnam. At the time South Vietnam was about 15 million people, 10 million who were Buddhists. I don't think it is a leap to say that these powerful men failed their intelligence when they inserted a Catholic to run a country of Buddhists. Of course Diem and his wife made matters worse by appointing only Catholics to important offices and that "puppet' government became known more for its corruption than for any sense of the affairs of state.
More and more evidence built that the United States was in over its head in its efforts to manipulate what by now had become essentially a civil war in Vietnam. By 1963 only months prior to Kennedy's assassination, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote to Kennedy that the war could not be won with a Diem administration. General MacArthur wrote that we would be foolish to fight on the Asiatic continent and would be best to let diplomacy sway what it could in that area. Others wrote that this war was a dead end for the United States and that no government propped by us could resist the reclamation of a country by its own people. Yet, the war escalated until under General Curtis LeMay, the very man who proclaimed himself a war criminal at the end of WWI, we were carpet bombing Saigon with up to 200 sorties per day.
The rest you know.
Again let me offer the disclaimer that I have no handle on the authorized version of either of the wars mentioned above. Clearly, in the first, we were attacked by the Japanese and many maintain that the bombings of Japan saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, maybe my father's life, mayer yours. I do not know enough about the probability and statistics of WWII to make a comment. Those statistics were McNamara's job. In the Vietnam War history has proven that the attack in the Gulf of Tonkin was a fabrication, the claims that the National Liberation Front was being armed by Chinese and Russian communists was a fabrication, and President Johnson's ego swayed decisions being made about the viability of continuing our efforts in that country. In the end we left and maybe millions more perished because of their support to our government.
Does this sound at all familiar? Sadly McNamara could have been a source of wisdom to assist in preventing mistakes in Vietnam by lessons learned in WWII. He failed himself and his country. The documentary which exposed McNamara's anguish and endless mullings over the ethics of killing thousands of civilians was lost on us all. We have never had a national debate about what our proper role in the world is let alone about what we will ethically permit when our military goes to war with our blessings. We often want to be Constitutionalists but allow presidents to send soldiers to war thus giving them a power the Constitution does not provide. In the sixties, I felt we were manipulated into the Vietnam morass; in our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, I know we were manipulated. We fail to learn what history and Robert McNamara present. Who benefits?
Most of material here is from The Fog of War, today's replay of an NPR interview with Errol Morris director of that documentary, Donald Schmidt's The Folly of War, and from memory.