That same day, Robert S. McNamara, the former defense secretary, died at 93. He was second only to President Lyndon Baines Johnson ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you kill today?") as the most hated figure of the Vietnam War era, in our country at least.
Until Vietnam, most Americans had not had a chance to see the fireworks of war up close. The Vietnam War has been called the first televised war. Its most memorable visual sky effects may not have been "bombs bursting in air" - although gunfire and bombs provided plenty of flashes of light (in just three years out of the 13-year war, the 1965-68 "Rolling Thunder" campaign, the U.S. hurled a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs on North Vietnam) - but the clouds of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant, streaming from U.S. helicopters, 23 million gallons of it.
It turns out that McNamara had second thoughts about the war, in particular the massive U.S. air war, as early as 1966. Early that year he told reporters privately, "No amount of bombing can end the war." In 1967, he urged Johnson to negotiate an end to the war instead of escalating it. At a farewell lunch after he was fired by Johnson, he actually cried as he spoke about the futility of the war and condemned the bombing. But it was not until decades later, in his 1995 memoir, in an oral history for the University of California at Berkeley, and in the thought-provoking 2003 film "The Fog of War, Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," that he made those thoughts public.
A thoughtful New York Times obituary describes him as a haunted man.
Was he a tragic figure? Or simply an evil one? Certainly his regrets came too late and he went public too late for the millions killed and maimed by the bloody war he led, defended, and then kept silent about. Their families and friends experienced real, ongoing tragedy while he lived in comfort.
"The Fog of War" showed that McNamara as an old man still hadn't come to terms with the meaning of Vietnam, yet he understood enough of its lessons to choose to speak out as the U.S. invasion of Iraq unfolded. "We are the strongest nation is the world today," he said in the film. "I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there."
"War is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend," he continued. "Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily."
It was that very idea, that the U.S. cannot win such wars, even with overwhelming military might, and should not wage them, that the "Bomb Hanoi" crowd and their successors who grabbed the White House in 2000 were determined to defeat. They called it the "Vietnam syndrome."
In its place George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the neo-conservative ideologues with their "Project for a New American Century" put forward a doctrine of projecting U.S. military power, unilaterally, anywhere and anytime. They unleashed a spectacular nighttime sky show of their own in March 2003, with the green flares of "shock and awe" over Baghdad.
It took not 13 years but less than six for the American public and the world to reject that doctrine. One might say the Vietnam syndrome is being followed by an Iraq syndrome, a "unilateralism" syndrome, a "pre-emptive war" syndrome.
Lessons of Vietnam and Iraq
With a new administration and a turn toward a new foreign policy, what will replace the Project for a New American Century? What are the real lessons of Vietnam and Iraq?
A new high-powered think tank is looking to supply some answers.
The Center for a New American Security was founded in 2007 by Kurt M. Campbell and MichÃ¨le A. Flournoy "to develop strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values." Flournoy is now the Obama administration's Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Campbell was recently confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.