He knew Vietnam War was a lost cause
Bob Herbert; 12/7/09
Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s icy-veined, cold-visaged and rigidly intellectual point man for a war that sent thousands upon thousands of people (most of them young) to their utterly pointless deaths, has died at the ripe old age of 93. Long after the horror of Vietnam was over, McNamara would concede, in remarks that were like salt in the still-festering wounds of the loved ones of those who had died, that he had been “wrong, terribly wrong”.
I remember getting my draft notice in the mid-1960s. I probably expected the other recruits would be a tough bunch, that they would all look like John Wayne. On the first day of basic training I was part of a motley gathering of mostly scared and skinny kids who looked like the guys I’d gone to high school with.
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That’s who was shipped off to Vietnam in droves -youngsters 18, 19, 20 and 21. Many would die there – others would return forever scarred. Johnson and McNamara should have been looking out for those kids, who knew nothing about geopolitics. Many would end up weeping on the battlefield, crying for their mums with their dying breaths. Or trembling uncontrollably as they watched buddies, covered in filth, bleed to death before their eyes.
I was lucky. The army sent me to Korea, no walk in the park, but no Vietnam. I would get letters from home telling me this buddy had been killed, that buddy had been killed, that a kid that I had played football or softball with (or had gone to the rifle range with) had been killed.
For what? McNamara didn’t know.
A close friend of mine came back from Vietnam so messed up that he killed his wife and himself. Kids sent to war soon learn what real toughness is, and it has nothing to do with lousy bureaucrats and armchair warriors sacrificing the lives of the young for political considerations and hollow, flag- waving, risk-free expressions of patriotic fervour.
McNamara, it turns out, realised early that Vietnam was a lost cause, but he kept it close to his chest, like a gambler trying to bluff his way through a bad hand. How in God’s name did he ever look at himself in a mirror? Lessons learnt from Vietnam? None.
As The New York Times’ Tim Weiner pointed out in McNamara’s obituary, Congress authorised the war after Johnson contended that North Vietnamese patrol boats had attacked American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. The attack never happened. As Weiner wrote: “The American ships had been firing at their own sonar shadows on a dark night.”
But McNamara told Johnson evidence of the attack was ironclad. Does this remind anyone of the “slam dunk” evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction?
The obscenity of war is lost on most Americans, and that drains the death of Robert McNamara of any real significance.