Monday, July 06, 2009

Robert S. McNamara

(June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009) R.I.P.

What are the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq? These are the two catastrophic wars in the history of American foreign policy, so it is critically important to ask that question. Even if we can't remember the answer longer than 1½ generations.

What I have learned is that it is not the generals and their uniformed subordinates who are responsible for the massive killing, maiming and burning in unnecessary wars. Not the uniforms. It is the suits and ties in the Pentagon, the White House, and within the august corridors of Congress. From each generation, they are self-recruited as among the 'Best and the Brightest'.

As far as Vietnam is concerned, McNamara was present at its conception. (Pretty much so, anyway.) Present at JFK's elbow in 1961, he's rightfully pegged by history as The Architect. He was a second-tier technocrat. He had been president of Ford only a month when Kennedy offered him the post as secretary of defense.

Names are indelibly burned into my mind. Not only McNamara, but there was McGeorge Bundy (NSC). And there was ubiquitous Dean Rusk, Secretary of State: a bloodless, tireless man who would endlessly repeat his answer to the last question he was asked.

All of them - the architects - are gone now, except Henry Kissinger.

I can't improve on a comment made by a listener of Talk Radio News Service named Bennett who recalls that, in part,
.... Unlike Mr. Rumsfeld, McNamara admitted he was wrong. He told President Johnson numerous times that we did not know enough to escalate. It was Johnson’s own desire to look as tough on Communism as Goldwater to politically neutralize the Republicans. The Vietnamese foreign minister was almost right in his accusing McNamara of not knowing history and the final mistake was not learned by McNamara or do our leaders today seem to understand it. Our country was founded in a guerrilla war. We won two major battles, Saratoga and Yorktown. Lost all the others. No standing army in history has ever defeated a guerrilla force. The only exceptions to this is when the military power fought a war of annihilation. That is our choice when fighting unconventional foes. We must make a conscious decision to become genocidal war criminals or get out. There are no other political or military options. I do not know if we would have been better off if Mr. McNamara had decided to get rich and stay at Ford. He saved thousands of lives with safety improvements in a few months .... Sent 58,000 Americans to their deaths and ruined a million more American lives. Cost millions of lives of our enemies. The man worked by numbers and those are his numbers....
Robert McNamara does not sit in the first tier of seats of our America's great unindicted war criminals. His incomplete mea culpa, along with LBJ's, places him in a row behind Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Doug Feith.

But he's in the room with them. He's there. Forever.