Sunday, July 12, 2009

McNamara’s War

The other day my wife, my son, and I were watching a news program. The news anchor was announcing the death of Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The announcer talked of McNamara’s accomplishments and of his failures. Part of the piece related to how the country had forgiven him for Vietnam after all of these years. After all, he had a book that rose to the top of the bestseller list, and was invited to give many lectures and speeches about his Vietnam experience attracting large audiences. However, his experience differed dramatically from the American GIs, and South Vietnamese who were on the ground in Vietnam. Out of frustration from what I was hearing, I exclaimed that I could not forgive Robert McNamara for the Vietnam War. (1)

My son said I should not place judgment on the actions of others. My son is right; I suppose that would be the Christian thing to do. I don’t judge a book by its cover. I am able to forgive another for a fault or an offense. I can renounce my anger and shed any resentment. Not hold a grudge. I can forgive and have forgiven, and others have forgave me. To forgive is a personal action one takes of an offense made against oneself. McNamara took actions that were against humanity. Those who are now dead because of his actions are not in a position to forgive. Only those who are now dead could have forgiven him. All of those who were maimed are the only ones that can forgive him. I cannot forgive him, nor is it appropriate for me to forgive him, for those offenses against others.

I also must make a judgment, for in the absent of judgment there would be no purpose of forgiveness. To forgive means that you have made a judgment of the offense and have chosen to forgive. To forgive does not mean that one should accept a wrongdoing. In my case, concerning Mr. McNamara, I do not carry any anger or resentment for his actions. I have never wished him any harm. However, I do not accept the notion that Vietnam should be forgotten and therefore forgiven.

Mr. McNamara is responsible, and every American of that era is responsible because we accepted his actions and the actions of our government at the time, for the killing of countless South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese men, women, children, and American GIs. America was responsible, not only for the loss of those lives but for the maiming of countless human beings as well. (2)

McNamara did not operate in a vacuum. Kennedy, and more importantly Johnson, their governments, the American military, and every American, as I stated earlier, are equally responsible for the horror of Vietnam; even so, McNamara was the principle actor in the conduct of that war. As a consequence, the Vietnam War was colloquially known as “McNamara’s war.”

McNamara, as well as Johnson, knowingly lied to America and to congress regarding the
Gulf of Tonkin Incident as a pretext to escalate America’s involvement in Vietnam.

McNamara, with Johnson’s approval or acquiescence, engineered the holocaust of Vietnam, as Robert Scheer in his article,
McNamara’s Evil Lives On called it, for it meets the definition of a great destruction resulting in extensive loss of life: napalm bombing, which killed and maimed combatants and non-combatants, destroyed the environment and burned down Vietnamese villages; fragmentation bombing in South Vietnam and carpet-bombing in North and South Vietnam killing millions; the use of Agent Orange which destroyed environments and so many lives; approval of free-fire zones; massacres which happened on his watch, though he was not directly responsible, he did set the conditions that allowed it to occur (i.e. free-fire zones); systematic torching of hooches (a peasant house; these were the dwellings of many South Vietnamese. These were their homes.); ordered body counts in order to measure his success -- more often than not, they were not only Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops, but also civilians.

As Robert Scheer wrote in his article: He [Robert McNamara] knew it then, and, give him this, the dimensions of that horror never left him. When I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times in 1995, after the publication of his confessional memoir, his assessment of the madness he had unleashed was all too clear:
Look, we dropped three to four times the tonnage on that tiny little area as were dropped by the Allies in all of the theaters in World War II over a period of five years. It was unbelievable. We killed—there were killed—3,200,000 Vietnamese, excluding the South Vietnamese military. My God! The killing, the tonnage—it was fantastic. The problem was that we were trying to do something that was militarily impossible—we were trying to break the will; I don’t think we can break the will by bombing short of genocide.

Robert McNamara may have had misgivings over Vietnam, as he expressed them in his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, but those misgivings did not contain remorse. As Robert Scheer explained: Despite those doubts, he had continued to express public confidence that the application of would cause the Communists to make peace [obviously, McNamara never understood the essence of that word]. His misgivings amounted to disappointment that he did not achieve his objective: “success in Vietnam.” If he was only allowed to be a greater mass murderer, to create a greater holocaust, and to kill more and to a greater extent through American firepower, he then could have achieved victory. That, he felt, was his failure. That was his regret.

McNamara’s Evil Does Live On

America has not learned from Vietnam, or from any of our other wars. We continue under the McNamara philosophy, and that of General Curtis LeMay of World War II fame, to believe that using enough American firepower will achieve victory; we continue to bomb the living daylights out of our enemies, a Shock and Awe mindset; we continue to believe that the necessity of war always justifies the evil committed and therefore there is no reason to forgive and we must forget; that we should not make judgments because it all occurred in a different zeitgeist, a different time and place when things were so different that it is not possible for us to appropriately make judgment.

Well, I do judge, make the assessment, and time does not make me less concerned of our government’s words and deeds, Vietnam only intensified my concern, nor more willing to forgive Robert McNamara for his actions or the actions of my country in Vietnam. What America, Johnson, and McNamara did in the conduct of that war was nothing short of evil. It was a holocaust. I don’t blame, or make judgments upon the American GI who served in Vietnam. McNamara and Johnson had a choice, but the average American GI on the ground did not.


It was the longest war in American history and the most unpopular American war of the twentieth century. It resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths. Even today, many Americans still ask whether the American effort in Vietnam was a sin, a blunder, a necessary war, or a noble cause, or an idealistic, if failed, effort to protect the South Vietnamese from totalitarian government.

Learn About the Vietnam War

The number of military and civilian deaths from 1959 to 1975 is debated. Some reports fail to include the members of South Vietnamese forces killed in the final campaign, or the Royal Lao Armed Forces, thousands of Laotian and Thai irregulars, or Laotian civilians who all perished in the conflict.

In 1995, the Vietnamese government reported that its military forces, including the
NLF [National Liberation Front], suffered 1.1 million dead and 600,000 wounded during Hanoi's conflict with the United States. Civilian deaths were put at two million in the North and South, and economic reparations were expected. Hanoi concealed the figures during the war to avoid demoralizing the population



Additional reading:
Remembering McNamara

McNamara, Vietnam, Robert Scheer,
McNamara’s Evil Lives On