What Did We Learn?


If you are of my generation, then 1) you remember “The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam” and 2) you knew who Robert McNamara was.

The Moratorium was held on October 15, 1969 and by some accounts was the largest nationwide anti-war demonstration in the country. Whether or not it had any affect on the outcome of the war is anyone’s guess. Richard Nixon indicated that it would not have any effect on his policies.

That particular time period is somewhat of a blur for me as I struggled with college and my own expectations (some of which are documented in “Our Father’s House”). I should feel lucky because I am certain that others struggled and lost their struggles. I was not doing well in college and the draft seemed a certainty in a life full of uncertainties.

The one thing that I did not like then (and which I am opposed to today) was the draft. I would have almost certainly joined the Air Force and followed in the footsteps of my father and grandfather but the specter of a process that took away my choice to do just that never set right with me. My participation in the Moratorium was as much my own statement about the inequities of the draft as it was against the war.

It was about protesting a system that sent too many young men off to war who, because of their economic status, could not escape the draft by enrolling in college or use their “daddy’s” influence to get an appointment into the National Guard. (One of my roommates that year, on the verge of flunking out of school, was able to obtain a slot in his hometown’s local Guard unit, with the help of his family, and spent his military career safely ensconced at an Army base in Germany.)

It was protesting a system that continued to send young men off to war and saying that we were winning the war. But we kept sending more troops overseas and it looked like some sort of Kafkaesque bottomless pit. And it did not help, when Richard Nixon, a master of the system if there ever was one, said that our protests did not matter.

I was saddened to hear of Secretary McNamara’s death. For many, the Viet Nam War was “his” war; I saw it more as Lyndon Johnson’s war. I just wish that his protests and thoughts about the war had come a little sooner and a little more loudly. Perhaps, it would have changed the course of the war.

But in the course of what he has said and written since then, in the course of what he said in the private councils of war, maybe we will learn something about war and its futility.

Mr. McNamara noted that Curtis LeMay, commander of the XXI Bomber Command, once said, in reference to the firebombing of Tokyo, that “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara said “And I think he’s right. He – and I’d say I – were behaving as war criminals.” McNamara also asked “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” He could not answer that question, a question that the leaders of all countries should consider. It is a question that we all must consider as well.

There are two other insights from Robert McNamara’s life that we need to learn. He pointed out that the greatest lesson that we can learn from war and about war is the need to know who the enemy is. We must put ourselves in our enemies’ place and empathize with them. The failure in Viet Nam can be seen in our failure to understand the enemy we were fighting, the failure to see the limits of high-tech weaponry, a failure to tell the truth to the American people and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat to which we were responding. While for Mr. McNamara, that threat was communism, the points still bear true today.

If we do not understand who we are fighting, if we feel that our technology can do things that it really can’t, if we do not understand the threat, and if we do not tell the American people the truth, then we will not win any war in which we engage our military today.

I conclude with the closing paragraphs of the New York Times obituary:

“What makes us omniscient?” he asked in “The Fog of War,” released at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“We are the strongest nation in the world today,” he said. “I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”

“War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend,” Mr. McNamara concluded. “Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

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One thought on “What Did We Learn?

  1. Pingback: RedBlueChristian » Blog Archive » What Did We Learn?

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