Yesterday, Robert McNamara died at the age of 93 at his home in Washington. McNamara is known best for his role as the architect of the Vietnam War. From 1961 to 1968 he was responsible for engineering the escalation of American troops in Vietnam. Because of him, the US went from only having a few hundred soldiers in Vietnam to having 17,000 soldiers by 1964. His actions resulted in the casualties of over 58,000 American soldiers, more than 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, and approximately 1.5 million Laotians and Cambodians.
He knew that he played a key role in America’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1964 he said, “I don’t object to its being called McNamara’s war. I think it is a very important war and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it.”
But perhaps what distinguishes him is his honest and open reflections on his role in Vietnam, which he soon came to regret. Years later he described the Vietnam War as “terribly wrong”. In 1995 he published a memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam in which he wrote:
[Top US officials] who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.
In The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life of Robert McNamara, an award winning documentary produced in 2003 by Errol Morris, he said:
We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.
And examination of McNamara offers a look at how certainty, ego and secrecy can result in policy that is fubar from the start…
…it also offers an opportunity to reflect on the limits of apology, the wages of war and the sad lack of accountability that eats at those who benefit from it even as it eats at those who object to it.
When I walked along The Wall and the cold stone grew taller and taller with name after name, person after person, friend after friend, son after son, father after father a shudder passed through me and I wondered how one could atone for such death and destruction…and I looked away as a woman wept softly while touching, barely making contact and oh so lightly caressing one name listed among the thousands.
And it is that moment that I think of now…those names and the millions of nameless Vietnamese that I think of now.
May they rest in peace.
And may we work to learn from the lesson of Robert McNamara…