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Reflections on a Master of War [Book Review]

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The double-talk with which Robert McNamara sought absolution from his role in the war in Vietnam is simply a reprise of his wartime behavior.

Book Review: IN RETROSPECT The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. By Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark. Illustrated. 414 pp. New York: Times Books/Random House.

In 1967, we all knew McNamara. With his stern, clerical presence, slicked-back hair, and rimless glasses, he resembled a corporate version of Grant Wood's American Gothic. He blended a pious, no-nonsense demeanor with the language and delivery of an intellectual whose facts, figures, and body counts were to be taken as gospel.

During the Vietnam War, McNamara served as Secretary of Defense for Lyndon Johnson. Drawing upon skills he developed in an ambitious corporate climb, he postured as cold, imperturbable, and unimpeachable as he pitched his war to Congress and the American public. In 1995, 20 years after the fall of Saigon, Robert McNamara wanted us to believe he had changed. On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, he offered us the obvious in the guise of an explanation.

Now he wants to explore, reflect, apologize. Why?

Perhaps he caught a glimpse of his own mortality. He was 78 at the time In Retrospect was published. Perhaps he wanted to set things right. He insisted that future generations deserve to know the truth about Vietnam. But, whatever his motives, Robert McNamara delivered nothing but yesterday's news. His impulse to tell all In Retrospect, assumes that, if only he knew then what he knows now, none of this would ever have happened. Oh sad, tired, infuriating phrase.

We knew then. Students learned about the Vietnam War at teach-ins on every college campus. Underground papers researched, reasoned, and published their findings until they were systematically raided, trashed and burned by the FBI. Teenage grunts in foxholes and rice paddies put two and two together to make four: McNamara's war was immoral, illegal, and impossible to win. And if we knew, why didn't he?

"We were wrong, terribly wrong," McNamara lamented. "The foundations of our decision-making were terribly flawed." No kidding. "None of us," he complains, "...was ever satisfied with the information we received from Vietnam." Were they misinformed? Are we to believe that, despite the might, manpower, and intelligence of the Pentagon, the men who sent boys to war didn't have the facts that McNamara loved so much? I can recall that whenever McNamara was challenged however timidly by the media, a condescending smile would flicker across his face and he would say, "I have access to information you don't have." Why would he use the bully pulpit of Random House to plead past ignorance? This is reflection?

In his book, McNamara admitted that one of the most compelling reasons for our intervention in Vietnam was a fallacy. The theory went that, if the tiny country fell under communist rule (their language, not mine), an ominous path of socialist stepping stones would lead from the Soviet Union and China through Vietnam to the rest of Southeast Asia. In reality, since the late 1950s, China and the Soviet Union had been engaged in a border conflict based on their own strong nationalist agendas. Vietnam had been fighting for its independence from China for roughly 2000 years and was not about to cozy up to this perennial enemy on its northern border. All the stepping stones were fighting each other and had been for ages. We knew it and we were just students. If he had "access" to information, why didn't McNamara know?

On paper, McNamara admitted he poured gasoline on the light at the end of the Vietnam tunnel. Back then, he insisted that all we needed was a little more napalm, a few more troops, andMcNamara's favoritea slightly higher body count to emerge victorious from the darkness. Yet it was clear that the task was not that simple. Every child we burned made two enemies of its parents. Every costly air attack on the Ho Chi Minh trail (the Viet Cong supply line from the north) could be repaired overnight because this Trail of Blood (as the Vietnamese called it) was nothing more than a dirt footpath, deserted by day, but teeming with supply-laden bicycles by night. In Vietnam, you could never beat the enemy because everybody was the enemy and the enemy was everywhere. You can't win a battle when you are surrounded. Every soldier knows that. Why didn't McNamara?

How could McNamara have been so "terribly wrong?" The truth is, he wasn't. He knew exactly what he was doing. McNamara used double-talk, obfuscation, and the sheer arrogance of power to justify a brutal hi-tech program of violence against a tiny agrarian nation. He couldn't stop the carnage because he couldn't admit that his policies had been a disaster. At press time, twenty-five years later, McNamara still couldnt admit it. He chose instead to employ the same, tired, obfuscations, to play the fool and assume - once again that we are fools enough to believe him.

In his search for forgiveness, McNamara was caught in the same conundrum that trapped Ronald Reagan in the aftermath of Iran-Contra. Either you know what is happening and you take responsibility for it, or you are a fool. Which would you have us believe, Mr. McNamara?

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Charles Degelman is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Published titles include books, periodicals, and Internet resources on U.S. and world history and on contemporary issues including the environment, the war in Iraq, healthcare, the (more...)
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