Robert McNamara Was Never Really in Touch with His Role in Causing Atrocity in Vietnam


 Living in Vietnam during the war as a child, I witnessed enough of American military power to know that no ideology or rationale can justify killing more than a million innocent civilians. So upon news of Robert McNamara's death I took another look at his confession in "The Fog of War," the documentary by Errol Morris.

While it was gratifying to hear Robert McNamara, one of the principle architects of that war, finally admitted that he, too, thought it was a mistake for Americans to go into Vietnam. Yet if I was glad that near the end of his life the former secretary of defense was admitting his mistakes, I was also sorely disappointed. McNamara was a highly intelligent man living a kind of self-deception. While readily confessing that the war was wrong, and that he knew it was wrong all along, he somehow absolved himself just as quickly. The ex-secretary of defense suggests on camera that he did the best he could under the circumstances and that, if he hadn't been at the helm micromanaging the war's first half, things might have been far worse. Never mind that under his watch the war widened and escalated.

I had hoped for an honest, gut-wrenching mea culpa. What I got instead was an elaborate explanation that sounded like an excuse. Not once did McNamara say, "I'm sorry." His well-argued confessions seemed rehearsed and disconnected from the emotional honesty one associates with remorse. It is as if the head acknowledged that mistakes were made, but the heart refused to feel the horrors that were unleashed.

Near the end of the film, McNamara talked about what he called the fog of war. "What the fog of war means," he said, "is that war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding are not adequate, and we kill people unnecessarily."

Errol Morris, known for his films "The Thin Blue Line," about an unjust murder conviction, and "A Brief History of Time," about physicist Stephen Hawking, uses that statement to give the movie its title. In one interview, Morris said, "I look at the McNamara story as 'the fog of war ate my homework' excuse." He added: "After all, if war is so complex, then no one is responsible."

While the Vietnamese, both north and south, are not free from blame for killing each other in Vietnam's bloody civil war, McNamara and his bosses, presidents Kennedy and Johnson, are clearly responsible for escalating it. The U.S. government, after all, under McNamara and president Kennedy, helped engineer the coup that killed South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, when Diem was considering peace negotiations with the North without U.S. interference. His death destabilized South Vietnam and plunged it into another dozen years of bloodshed.

McNamara kept sending American troops to Vietnam while knowing deep in his heart that the war was not winnable, and encouraged the South to continue fighting. It is no wonder that South Vietnamese tell the story of their relationship with America as one of spectacular betrayal. The United States abandoned the South Vietnamese government in the middle of a war. Many South Vietnamese officials died in communist gulags after the war's end, and more than 2 million Vietnamese fled overseas as boat people, many ending up at the bottom of the sea. McNamara never made references to the suffering of the South Vietnamese people as a direct cause of his administration of the war, as if somehow an entire people have conveniently ceased to exist. In later years, he made peace with his enemies but not with the allies that the US abandoned.

McNamara left the Johnson administration in 1967. Despite what he knew about the war, he refused to speak out against it, and watched in silence as more body bags came home. Foggy or not, someone as smart as McNamara should know right from wrong. If the secretary of defense knew it was wrong to continue the war, why did he keep his silence until now, more than three decades later? If he knew he was killing innocent people unnecessarily, where was the man who should, in the aftermath of terrible bloodshed and in acknowledging the mistakes, beg from the deepest part of his humanity for forgiveness?

Morris asked him precisely that. "Why," he inquires near the end of the film, "did you fail to speak out against the war after you left the Johnson administration?"

"I'm not going to say any more than I have," McNamara responded. "These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You don't know what I know about how inflammatory my words can appear."

The documentary has a subtitle: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. One of them is, "Believing and seeing are both often wrong." What that means to McNamara is that doing the right thing turned out to be an enormous error.

What it means to me is that when a man confesses yet cannot connect the horror he helped unleash with his own humanity, he is not to be trusted. Alas, if I and others who want to hear a heartfelt apology, we no longer can. The old fog of war had permanently thickened with his passing.

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