Tuesday, July 07, 2009

# Posted 11:16 AM by Patrick Porter  

ROBERT MCNAMARA: To have been a business supremo, Pentagon chief and President of the World Bank is to have lived to some purpose.

But Robert McNamara, who died yesterday, spent his final years trying to work out what that purpose was, where it all went wrong, and seeking a kind of armistice with the American public.

He might be remembered as the architect of escalation and disaster in the Vietnam war. His arithmetically elaborate, mechanistic approach to war planning and strategy turned out to be folly. Business acumen and organisational genius were no substitutes for sound strategic judgment. The fragility of America's client state in Saigon, the boundless political will of the communists, and the sheer difficulty of running a manpower-intensive war of divisive military occupation - these problems wrecked his war.

Decades later, he wrote a retrospective mea culpa of sorts, diagnosing where the US erred and measuring his own guilt. This was unlikely to please many - unflinching supporters of the war found him to be changing course with the winds of opinion, whereas opponents and alienated veterans found it all too late. A later film, The Fog of War, found McNamara repeating Sherman's words 'War is Cruel, M'aam', part seeking forgiveness but part seeking justification.

Large-scale military involvement in Vietnam was in many ways a disaster for the US in terms of lives lost, money spent, legitimacy squandered, millions of Vietnamese dead, a generation divided and ultimate failure to prevent the country being unified under a communist regime. Slightly more controversially, the carpet-bombing of Cambodia may not have created Pol Pot-ism, but it helped to midwife it into being by radicalising the Cambodian revolution. To a certain extent, by trying aggressively to stop a domino falling, America helped to knock one or two over.

However, I've always been uneasy with the many, glib judgments that still linger over the mythologised war.

There may not have been a straightforward 'domino effect' in the way McNamara believed and then renounced. But the fall of countries to communist rule could inspire other revolutions and make allies waver. America was possibly right to worry about its credibility as an ally. This didn't mean that the US had to intervene in mass wherever communism appeared, but it also meant that there was a trans-national dynamic of revolutionary momentum and cumulative strength that was hard to ignore. America could hardly hope to stop enemy expansion everywhere, but it could try to make it expensive and difficult. How to do so was the issue that plagued policymakers right the way through.

Ho Chi Minh may not have been a mouthpiece or puppet of a monolithic Red conspiracy around the world. But he was an avowed Stalinist as much as he was a Vietnamese anticolonial nationalist - just ask those fellow Vietnamese nationalists who didn't share his Stalinism.

And his regime certainly went beyond mere nationalism. Former Vietcong General Pham Xuan An looked back, at 'All that talk about "liberation" twenty, thirty years ago, all the plotting, all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.'

To find in Vietnam a front of the global anticommunist effort was not necessarily to indulge in McCarthyite hysteria. The Vietnamese communists depended very much on the external patronage of the Soviet Union and China at different points. And the very fact that President Johnson was reluctant to escalate the war fully to the north was due to the problem that it might spread the war catastrophically beyond Vietnam.

At the same time, the pursuit of 'symmetrical containment', as John Lewis Gaddis calls it, was not always the prudent course nor 'worth it.' There were other, often dark, ways to contain local communisms. Local proxies, covert funding or 'indigenised' forces, for example. And by intervening as they did, the vital cause of anti-communism was entangled with colonialism, and all the poison that brought with it.

This, of course, is to judge with 20/20 hindsite. Some kind of involvement in Vietnam was widely accepted as a policy in Washington orthodoxy in the early 60's. But as MacNamara discovered and had to endure, historical judgments are made this way, they can be harsh indeed, and not even a lifetime and later career of altruism afterwards can deliver forgiveness.

To his credit, MacNamara did not indulge in the kind of blatant genre of self-exoneration that we see all too often around other wars. But his attempt at a more complex dialogue with the public didn't dissipate the enduring anger. As a memory, Vietnam was simply too painful.

Cross-Posted at Kings of War
(0) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments: Post a Comment