Robert McNamara, who died in the United States on Monday aged 93 was one of the leading architects of the Vietnam war. For those of us who grew up in the 60's our lives unfolded with the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Each night images and news footage of the war were beamed into our lounge rooms. As Defense Secretary in the Kennedy and then the Johnston Administrations Robert McNamara was perhaps the most vocal spokesman and advocate for the American cause. It was McNamara who oversaw the tragic and ultimately disastrous American (and Australian) military involvement in Vietnam. It was McNamara who executed the plans that resulted in the slaughter of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian people people and nearly 60,00 American deaths.
But what we now know was that during much of his tenure as Defense Secretary McNamara had deep misgivings about the war but remained silent. From around the mid 60's McNamara doubted the American cause but continued to prosecute the war forcefully. The war ground on until 1975.
McNamara eventually came to regret his decisions and apparently suffered guilt in his later years. His 1995 book and participation in Erroll Morris's documentary The Fog of War were in a sense a prolonged apology. But even then McNamara deflected blame by stressing that every other official in Washington made similar mistakes and that US policies were based on incorrect information.
But Robert Scheer in Truth Dig and Ted Rall in an article in Information Clearing House both point out that his change of heart came far to late for the millions who died. As Rall writes:
"If the dead could speak, surely they would ask;why couldn't you see then what you understood so clearly now"
Like so many politicians and people who hold great power McNamara failed to speak out when he should have and failed to act to prevent the great evil he was responsible for perpetrating. There is no better recent example of what Hannah Arendt called 'the banality of evil"
As Will Bunch writes in a piece in Huffington Post the tragedy of Robert McNamara is an American tragedy that does not stop with Vietnam but continues today with respect to American involvement in military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bunch writes:
The life of Robert McNamara was a personal tragedy, but it was also an American tragedy, our tragedy -- because even after McNamara spelled out everything that went so horribly wrong in Vietnam, he lived long enough to see a new generation of the self-appointed "best and brightest" in Washington pay absolutely no mind to the lessons of our recent past.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, our policy-makers knew nothing or cared little about the long history and convoluted ethnic and religious politics of Mesopotamia's Fertile Crescent. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there was no plan for the proper military follow-up to a period of "shock and awe" bombing. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we totally misjudged the "nationalism" of the people who lived there and how they would react to a long American occupation. And perhaps most importantly, In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there was no real "public debate" as we marched headlong and foolishly into 2003 -- with way too many "unexamined assumptions," "unasked questions," and "readily dismissed alternatives."
Perhaps the best non- fiction book I read has McNamara as its central figure. Paul Hendrickson's book The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. From www.amazon.com
Hendrickson interweaves the stories of five others caught up in the whirlwind of the times: an artist who tried to kill McNamara by flinging him off a ferry in 1972; a Marine who fought in the war; a Quaker who immolated himself in protest against the war; a nurse who served in Vietnam; and a Saigon native who suffered horribly at the hands of the Communists. With breathtaking dexterity, Hendrickson juxtaposes insights on McNamara, whose life he describes as "a kind of postwar technocratic hubristic fable," against episodes in the lives of those over whom McNamara wielded a distant yet very real power. Hendrickson finds that McNamara "owned a significant conscience, which he struggled against and was continually willing to compromise above all, perhaps, in helping to escalate a war that he believed could not be won militarily. Hendrickson, who once studied for the priesthood, writes in a voice that is moral yet not preachy, and he is careful to identify his own mixed feelings about McNamara.
Hendrickson's book is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand McNamara and the Vietnam War.