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I Don’t Blame McNamara

I don’t blame Robert McNamara for the US failure in Vietnam, although he certainly played an important role in it. As Secretary of Defense, he was not powerful enough to lose a war single-handedly from the Pentagon. The real culprits were the presidents — Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon — the Congress, and the American public. McNamara was an official under orders, and he carried them out to the best of his ability. He was more like the generals who worked for Hitler; he could have been guilty of war crimes, but not for the overall conduct of the war. That his obituaries are not claiming that he was guilty of war crimes probably speaks well of his character. Today, we have wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the country more or less ignores, but in which they have been quicker to perceive war crimes, particularly in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

I blame the country, the United States, rather than McNamara. Despite protests, the leadership of the country let the war go on. I think from some of the obituaries I read, more GIs died in Vietnam after McNamara left as Secretary than during his tenure. The NYT obit says “Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; 42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come.”
As long as the rich and connected — Bush, Cheney, Clinton, Wall Street types — could avoid fighting, they were content to let the war go on, but in order to cover their cowardice they reviled those who fought the war, whether McNamara in the Pentagon, or some poor private just out of high school. The criticism heaped on McNamara in his obituaries taints every soldier who fought in the war. I’d like to know more about how the Germans treated their low ranking veterans of World War II. Did the German soldiers experience more shame and hatred from their fellow citizens than Vietnam veterans did?

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