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McNamara still lives in a fog of war

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Posted: Friday, February 27, 2004 10:00 pm | Updated: 6:34 pm, Wed May 16, 2012.

The most important among the Oscar-nominated films at the 2004 Academy Award ceremony may be "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

The documentary evolves from interviews taped two years ago with the former Secretary of Defense. McNamara, now 87, is often named with former President Lyndon Johnson as a major villain in the escalation of the Southeast Asian war during the 1960s.

During the Vietnam War - 1959 to 1975 - more than 58,000 Americans and 3.4 million Vietnamese were killed.

Joe Guzzardi

"Fog of War" opens with a lengthy look at McNamara's career. We learn that during World War II, McNamara was an Air Force colonel under the notorious hawk Gen. Curtis Le May.

Along with Le May, McNamara supported the decision to firebomb 67 Japanese cities that on one March 1945 night in Tokyo killed 100, 000 civilians. Many more were killed in subsequent raids and during the atomic bomb attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From his World War II experiences, McNamara claims he learned one of his 11 lessons: "Proportionality should be a guideline in a war." But did he really learn anything?

"Fog of War" director Errol Morris got the idea for his project after he read Mc Namara's 1995 bestseller "In Retrospect".

Morris asked McNamara the question that everyone who lived through the Vietnam era has asked tens of thousands of times: "To what extent did you feel you were the author of policy? Or to what extent were your policies the product of historical forces outside of your control?"

McNamara dodges the question by stating that his job was to serve President Johnson, who refused to withdraw American troops from Southeast Asia. But by 1968 McNamara apparently understood Vietnam's tragedy. He sent a private memo to Johnson urging withdrawal from Southeast Asia. Johnson's response to McNamara was to fire him, appoint him president of the World Bank and - ironically - give him the Medal of Freedom.

Disappointingly, McNamara remained uncritical of Johnson and his Vietnam policy. But McNamara should have spoken up. In the seven years between his recommendations to end the Vietnam conflict until the U.S. evacuated Saigon, an additional 35,000 American troops and 1.4 million Vietnamese were killed.

To this day, McNamara refuses to admit that he could have helped avert additional loss of life. Says McNamara evasively, "The fog of war means it is extremely difficult in military operations to be certain of what the effects of the actions you take will be. It means that national leaders should be much more cautious in the way they draw their conclusions."

In early February, McNamara returned to the University of California, Berkeley for the first time since he graduated in 1938. Along with Morris and journalism professor Mark Danner, McNamara spoke about Vietnam before an audience that included some of his old foes like Daniel Ellsberg.

Despite suggestions in McNamara's comments that he opposes how the Bush administration handled the Iraq invasion, he refused to come straight out and say so. "My thoughts are not targeted on Bush or the Republicans. My thoughts are targeted on the actions," said McNamara.

But, sounding a cautionary note to President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, McNamara reiterates another of his 11 lessons: "Believing and seeing are both often wrong."

For those of us who lived on both sides of "guns and butter," McNamara's legacy isn't 11 lessons. When I think of McNamara I remember "body counts," "kill ratios," "the domino theory," "body bags," "Vietnamization," and "light at the end of the tunnel."

I also remember a 1966 interview that the New York Times' Harrison Salisbury conducted with North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Von Dong.

Asked Von Dong: "How long to you Americans want to fight, Mr. Salisbury? One year? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We will be happy to accommodate you."

Finally, I recall reading how, in the words of North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, his army would prevail:

"The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. The enemy has to drag the war out to win but does not, on the other hand possess the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war …"

Johnson recognized the futility of Vietnam even before the big war build-up began. In two taped White House 1964 telephone conversations, Johnson said Vietnam was the "the biggest damn mess I ever saw. I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out."

Lyndon Johnson is long dead. McNamara is 87-years old. A sincere apology from McNamara - a bearing of his soul - would be a catharsis for McNamara as the end of his life draws near.

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