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McNamara on Vietnam: breaking the silence, hideously


"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," by Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark. Photographs. 414 pages. New York: Times Books. $27.50

Among the monuments in the city of Washington, there is a polished black stone wall that I have walked to half a hundred times. You know the one. Some day I hope to go there and not break down in tears. I have tried. Each time, I have failed.

About that matter, Robert S. McNamara has written a book. In the last week, it has been much in the news, for good reason: As Secretary of Defense in John F. Kennedy's entire presidency and under Lyndon Johnson until he left the Pentagon to head the World Bank on Feb. 29, 1968, Mr. McNamara was more central to the U.S. war in Vietnam than any other person, with the arguable exception of President Johnson.

Taken as a whole, his book informs us that the American officials responsible for that war neglected exercising even elemental, primitive intelligence or moral judgment. They failed totally this most essential responsibility of leadership: the courage to question fundamental assumptions.

As a young reporter, I covered many of the events in the book. I and many colleagues often thought we knew the war was wrong or failing, but given substantial doubt, we often credited government positions: With their vast access to information and knowledge, the officials had to know better. McNamara now shows the opposite was true.

L In a preface, he declares: "I want to put Vietnam in context

. . . . We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

A partial price of that debt, not detailed in the book: more than 58,000 U.S. military dead and 150,000 wounded; a quarter million South Vietnamese military dead; more than 1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military dead; at least 2 million civilians dead, north and south. Among the more abstract casualties were Americans' trust in their government and leaders, and almost a generation of domestic tranquility.

Writing this book must be accepted as an act of courage. Mr. McNamara's intent must be taken as righteous. It would have been far pleasanter for him to carry his silence to his grave. Even with its failings, without this book, history would be deprived of a major piece of evidence and a small but considerable wealth of details.

None of this diminishes or exculpates the horror of that evidence, which is Mr. McNamara's disclosure of how the mightiest nation in earth's history came to wage a barbarically bloody, transparently unwinnable and almost entirely purposeless war of conquest against a hapless, implacable nationalist movement.

The book weaves a tapestry of that disclosure, seamless, cumulative. Among many passages that faintly suggest the whole, perhaps the one that does best is this from December of 1964, just after President Johnson's election:

"As the likely failure of our training strategy became more apparent in the months ahead, we tilted gradually - almost imperceptibly - toward approving the direct application of U.S. military force. We did so because of our increasing fear - and hindsight makes it clear it was an exaggerated fear - of what would happen if we did not. But we never carefully debated what U.S. force would ultimately be required, what our chances of success would be, or what the political, military, financial, and human costs would be if we provided it. Indeed these basic questions went unexamined."

Punctiliously, he describes a pounding rhythm: new task force, new study group, gathering of cabinet and sub cabinet people, consultation with experienced outsiders. Step by step, each step is wrong.

No one ever rises to ask: Is this really necessary? Is it worth the costs in blood and treasure, in turmoil at home and alienation abroad?

The origin of the Vietnam policies, of course, was the "domino theory," the fear that if the U.S. abandoned an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam, other small countries throughout the world would fall under the control of Moscow and Beijing. That was disproved, of course, when in 1975 the U.S. finally did withdraw.

Tracing the collective and individual refusals to re-examine that theory, Mr. McNamara builds a narrative of men totally under the control of events they did not understand. Nominal leaders failing to lead, trapped in a whirlpool of warfare.

A few of many distinct points that build the case:

* In January of 1964 "we had no senior group working exclusively on Vietnam. . . . We had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us [and] we were left harried, overburdened, and holding a map with only one road on it. Eager to get moving, we never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination."

* In the winter of 1964, but applicable to many, many other points: ". . . analysis showed that air attacks would not work, but there was such determination to do something, anything, to stop the communists that discouraging reports were often ignored."

* "Some critics have asserted that the United States lacked a military strategy in Vietnam. In fact, we had one - but its assumptions were deeply flawed."

* His final articulation of the failure: "We both overestimated the effect of South Vietnam's loss on the security of the West and failed to adhere to the fundamental principle that, in the final analysis, if the South Vietnamese were to be saved, they had to win the war themselves."

The book's tone is eerie, weird. Throughout, Mr. McNamara passes no personal judgments. Even the people he emphatically disagrees with are characterized as reasonable, loyal, honorable. All involved are blessed with innocence by association. Mr. McNamara can damn no damns.

This unreality is amplified by the use of familiar names, almost childlike, for the main players: "Westy" for Gen. William Westmoreland, "Mac" for National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, "Dean" for Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Only Lyndon Johnson is cited formally, almost invariably as "the president." It gives the book a feel of the lads going out for a beer after the Wednesday night bowling league.

Mr. McNamara's entire recitation - clearly unintentionally - presents the chiefs of staff and the other military professionals essentially as Boys-With-Toys. That is not his phrase.

As he describes it, this is how the top generals and admirals

behaved: The fly boys wanted to bomb and strafe, the soldiers wanted to march and shoot guns, the sailors wanted to fire off cannons and torpedoes and launch carrier airplanes. Even in the internal debates about tactics each military figure looks at the sweep of policy with this keen vision: "How can we take this opportunity to wage my special brand of war?"

Ultimately, they all got their chances. Lots of people died. The country was bitterly divided. The Johnson presidency was destroyed, its domestic initiatives painfully damaged.

Gradually, the book begins to cry out, then shout, that its great unexpressed subtext is this famous moral question: How could America's best and brightest - and most informed - be so wrong?

The book's answer: Arrogance breeds stupidity.

It is both tragic and characteristic that in providing that answer, almost by indirection, Mr. McNamara still clearly fails - or refuses - to understand it.

In a final chapter titled "The Lessons of Vietnam," he cites 11 major failures. His heart is in Point 10:

"We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions. For one whose life has been dedicated to the belief and practice of problem solving, this is particularly hard to admit. But, at times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world."

From which the only rational resort can be prayer: Please, God, preserve us Thy children from the madness of those who would seek to fashion a perfect, tidy world.

Michael Pakenham, book editor of The Sun, was a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in 1963 through 1965, and covered the White House and State Department. He continued to write about Vietnam and edit articles throughout the war as assistant foreign editor of the New York Herald Tribune and assistant managing editor and associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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