Message from McNamara’s book: it’s not too late to rethink our war policy…

July 13, 2009

With the war in Afghanistan getting more serious and the indication that Iraq’s ongoing civil war might be heating up with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the cities, it seems a good time to look into not-so-distant history – the Vietnam War – and see if something can be learned from it.

I have now finished reading the late Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s book, some would say his mea culpa, on Vietnam: “In Retrospect, the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”, published in 1995. McNamara died a week ago at the age of 93. He lived with the fact that many had called Vietnam “McNamara’s War”. Having left President Lyndon Johnson’s administration in 1968, he apparently kept all that bottled up until he published his book.

After reading it, I would sum up his position this way:

I was wrong. I was not the only one. We should have analyzed the situation better, but the mood of the times (Zeitgeist?), the Cold War philosophy, precluded that, and we were supported by the public up until we had gone too far. And the reason we conducted a limited war (instead of doing anything and everything to win) is that we feared getting Communist China and the Soviet Union directly involved and pushing events to a nuclear confrontation. And we eventually realized that due to the ineffective government in South Vietnam and the ambivalence of the population there really was never a chance to save that nation from the communists.

One portion of the book dealt with the fact that at one time there seemed to be a direct and public confrontation between the military chiefs and McNamara. They accused him of micro-managing the war and not letting them do their jobs. They, the military chiefs, wanted to be more aggressive, especially in the air war, and go after all targets, no matter their geographical location, such as Haiphong Harbor and on the border of China.

And I have blogged before, and nothing in this book told me anything different, that the mood of the public at the time was this: first the nation was truly divided on the war. Nonetheless, I think even among those who did not like it, most of them agreed with war supporters that if we must fight then the only way was fight to win and get it over with. By doing that, we would achieve our goal of saving South Vietnam from the communists and we would save American lives by not needlessly prolonging the conflict. I lived through this entire history and I heard people, so many, say things like: “I don’t really believe in this war, but if we’re going to risk American lives then why don’t we fight to win?”

In one brief passage in the book, McNamara notes that in the process of trying to save South Vietnam we indiscriminately killed a large number of civilians and did much damage to the country. I would add that it seemed like we were doing more damage to South Vietnam, our ally, than North Vietnam. We bombed North Vietnam, but with many restrictions. And we never invaded North Vietnam, even though North Vietnam invaded the south with both regular army forces and the Viet Cong guerillas they supported (and McNamara referred to other types of forces, such as militias, I was never aware of).

I’m not going to go back through the book and quote things. But I would suggest if you have not read it to read it. It’s kind of self-serving, and I got the impression that he slyly took the blame while spreading it around and went to great lengths to say that he at some point knew along with many others who supported the war that they were all wrong and that he tried to tell other insiders, thus trying to lessen his own blame (I would blame LBJ and then Richard Nixon; they were the commanders in chief through the all-out part of the war).

But here is something important that I think the book brings out: Public opinion means everything. You can’t fight to win a war without full public support. And unless you level with the public early on, you will not get it or be able to keep it. The Johnson administration withheld their own studies that demonstrated the cause was probably hopeless (and they knew this early on).

We fought the Vietnam War on the premise that we had to hold the line against the expansion of communism. But once we withdrew and once South Vietnam fell, while that nation became one nation under communist rule, the communists did not expand. Their own system worked against them and does today.

Also, reading the book has only served to confirm my already-held belief that the United States should only fight wars in true self defense. Sometimes it is hard to decide what that actually means, but that should be the rule to guide decision making on whether to fight a war, nonetheless.

(Also before I forget, I have more than once blogged that really we could have won the Vietnam War, kind of Korea style, but I am not so sure of that now, but that is moot anyway.)

So, using history as a guide, the U.S. needs to reassess what it is trying to do now in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether we can prevail and whether it is all worth it (and is it ever too late to save American lives?).

My take on what the Obama administration’s position seems to be is that we need to exit Iraq gracefully, but we need to press on in Afghanistan because that is where the 9/11 forces staged and where Al Qaeda leaders got refuge (so they seem to be in Pakistan now – so do we invade Pakistan?). The administration has also decided that we should protect the Afghan villagers to get their support, kind of like the pacification program in Vietnam (which was a failure).

But my question is: given our economy at home, whose living conditions should we be working on, those of Afghan residents or U.S. residents? (And there is a direct parallel here with the guns and butter approach of the LBJ administration – fight Vietnam, improve things at home at the same time, and that did great damage to our economy – but as often is the case, I digress.)

We did manage to install a government, however effective or ineffective, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Maybe we should simply tell it, handle it, and don’t harbor enemies of the U.S. We can come back by air or land or both.

And I think that if the Obama policy makers came to the conclusion in private that winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans cannot be done, they would face the same dilemma as McNamara said he and others did. They were afraid that the U.S. would lose face and would become weak. Decisions are tough. But do you continue to commit others’ lives to save face?

In my previous blog I wrote that the U.S. still today needs to come up with a clear policy on how the nation gets into war. I think we ought to follow the Constitution, which indicates that declaring war is the responsibility of congress. While the president always has to have the authority to deal with emergencies, a war is a much more involved process with such dire ramifications that it needs deliberation and support from elected representatives. And don’t play games with the definition of war by calling it something else (police action, conflict), everyone knows one when they see it.

The U.S. has not fought a constitutionally-declared war since World War Two. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that we have not had a clear-cut victory since then. Korea was a stalemate (although we did save South Korea), Vietnam a failure, the first Gulf War indecisive in that we found ourselves going back into Iraq years later, Kosovo, well you have me on that one, I don’t even know why we felt we had a dog in that hunt (and that was not an all-out war on our part), and the current wars – don’t know, still in progress.

But without taking a position on the current wars, I can only say, let’s learn from history and think this thing out and do what is actually best for our own defense and realize we cannot nor should not remake the world in our own image.

And to paraphrase a famous quote: who wants to be the last person to die for a lost cause?

Oh. But I feel self-conscious now, for some would contend I am not supporting the troops. To the contrary, I support them one hundred percent. I am only saying we need to clearly have goals spelled out and be in agreement that they are just and we need to make an honest assessment as to whether our efforts are practicable. If we have checked all the boxes in support – throw everything at it and fight to win.

I do not believe in the concept of “limited war”. Seems like if you limit your actions but the other side does not, you lose. And if you both agreed to limit your war, you would both be morally wrong — wasting lives for a game. 


I did not mention the involvement of the UN or NATO in Korea or Kosovo, respectively, or coalitions, because it is my observation that the U.S. always uses those organizations as cover for its own policy. On that subject I fear one day it could come back to bite us. Sure it works when we run the show, but what if we were outnumbered? And in no case should the U.S. ever give over its sovereignty to another nation or entity (I think it has been done to some small extent, but it should not be done).