In the waning days of World War II, a good
number of Nazi war criminals and sympathizers
traded their uniforms for civilian
wear and slid into anonymity in disparate
regions worldwide. Jewish Nazi hunters
tracked many down as did the Soviets. Even
into the past decade, it wasn’t unusual to
flip on the news and find a Nazi war criminal
had been discovered in South America,
captured and turned over to authorities for
trial. It was always a sad spectacle. They
were old men by then.
In their new lives, they had made friends who often testified to the good qualities of the old, feeble men. Let bygones be bygones, they often would say. You must be mistaken, came their chorus. Families caught up in the profound mess usually trod the same line of denial: Let him die in peace, here, now; he’s suffered enough. And of course, with each discovery, a battery of surviving victims of the Nazi regime took the screen to scold their former tormentors and to remind all of us how inhumane mankind can be. The victims’ faces were witness to Nazi genocide; their arms, tattooed with identifying numbers and symbols, spoke to the authenticity that they gained their authoritative perspectives on mass extermination at Buchenwald or Auschwitz.
That Nazi death parade is nearly over. With each war criminal’s passing, we gain some measure of justice, but we lose something, too: the “obvious sinister.” In my youth, when the word Nazi was spoken, you knew it meant evil—and, if you doubted it, somebody’s dad would raise his shirt and point to the 10-inch scar across his stomach and say, “then that Nazi S.O.B. shot me right here,” to which kids would recoil in fear. If you say “Nazi” today, you think of Tom Cruise. Yeah, he’s doing the right thing in the movie Valkyrie, but the bad guys could be any bad guys. World War II is basically just a string of movies now, and the most sinister roles in today’s movies are played by farting dogs.
So it is that—lacking perspective on real evil, on real “sinisters”—many Americans are heaping piles of hateful good-riddance upon Robert McNamara, who died this week at the old age of 93. McNamara is regarded as the architect of the Vietnam War—a misplaced distinction, considering the Vietnam War had been fought for decades before the United States entered it. McNamara may be the guy who painted a mustache on the work of Ho Chi Minh, who was fighting for Vietnamese independence, or who tangled the plans of General Giap, but he was hardly the architect. Nor was he sinister. Saying or seeing the name “McNamara” did not send the same chill down your spine as “Nazi.”
If anything, McNamara was delusional. He thought we were superior to the Vietnamese, because, after all, we are Americans and, well, they are Vietnamese. He thought we could mop them up into a tidy corner in a few months. He thought our technology would beat their wit, guile and nationalism. He thought we could win in Vietnam by killing them faster than they could kill us. He thought about war, like building a car— McNamara was once president of Ford Motor Company—that if you just put all the nuts and bolts and chrome in the right places, it would work and Americans would buy it. And they did. He never once thought he could be wrong in either strategy or mission.
Americans bought all the war chrome McNamara could sell, and our boys were off to war. Actually, Americans had been dying in Vietnam long before the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that allowed President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to greatly expand the war. The Marines landed, my brother among them, in March 1965. They were told—and America was sold the idea—that they’d be home for Christmas. It would be nine more Christmases until all American troops were back from Vietnam. More than 58,000 American men and woman would die waiting for their holiday pound cake. So much for McNamara always being right, being truly among the “best and brightest,” as proclaimed by author David Halberstam.
Our war dead was a palpable war expense and a scalable number to McNamara, since we were indeed killing them faster than they could kill us. A war of attrition is no way to win a war, yet that’s the only way McNamara knew how to win. His own war experience during World War II came as an analyst measuring efficiencies of the B-29 bomber—which were indeed efficient against an enemy surrounded and on the run, not the case in Vietnam. He became more “efficient” at Ford Motor Company after World War II. He was so efficient, President John F. Kennedy named him as Secretary of Defense in his Camelot administration. His should have been an honorable obituary. It will not be.
I cannot and will not defend Robert McNamara. As with the passing of Nixon and Johnson before him, I will not shed a tear. I will not miss him. But I don’t regard him as an ogre, as an inherently evil man. The scorn many people possess is not because of what happened in Vietnam, it’s due to what happened because of Vietnam. What America gained in good music pales to its national mourning, a humanitarian debt, a society torn and a nation still unable to right its own moral compass.
Blame McNamara all day long. Scorn him till the cows come home, if it makes you feel good. But he is not the obvious sinister, just the obvious scapegoat—a dead scapegoat at that. McNamara lived a long, efficient life. That others would not because of his decisions is an irony that wouldn’t matter much in his analytical mind. His death doesn’t even square the score. Spare the histrionic trial. Bury him and be done with it.