Rolling Thunder: the Rerun
People concerned about the US-led NATO war against Yugoslavia find much to reflect upon in the Vietnam experience. Despite certain differences, similarities between the two episodes--particularly regarding bombing--seem uncanny. And now there's further evidence of how dramatically things like bombing can go wrong, in a book by someone in a position to know, who should have known better.
Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1968, contributes several important insights in Argument Without End, the first installment of an ongoing project with US and Vietnamese experts studying decision-making processes during the Vietnam War. He argues that the war was always unwinnable for the United States, that it should have ended long before it began and that, throughout, both sides missed countless opportunities to find mutually satisfactory, negotiated outcomes. According to him, US and Vietnamese interpretations of each other's behavior were 100 percent wrong 100 percent of the time.
McNamara tells us he undertook the project so that we can learn from and avoid repeating the same general mistakes. All well and good. Nevertheless, he infuriatingly fails to mention, let alone address, what must be the critical, central lesson of America's defeat in Vietnam: that the war had no moral basis, and so, for a democratic society, never amounted to anything more than blindly wreaking havoc on a foreign land. The incredible attendant tragedy was foremost a moral failure, then, not merely a technical failure of statecraft.
If one is to believe McNamara, from the few passages where he touches on what US government officials were thinking regarding justifications for the war, they were concerned with fears of Communist expansion and sought to help the South Vietnamese stand on their own. Indeed, perhaps this was occasionally true in the early sixties, when, by diverse accounts, high-minded though mistaken ideals were in play. But by February 1965, with the National Liberation Front attack on Pleiku and the US bombing response called Rolling Thunder (which remained in effect for the next three and a half years), noble ideals got shoved aside. US rhetoric toward Vietnam turned increasingly shrill and vindictive. The goal of the war changed radically, from an altruistic crusade to remedy injustice to the defeat of an enemy. Oversized egos were on the line. Words like "credibility gap" and "body count" crept into official speech. The war became an American war as casualties mounted, and Americans acquired a stake in it that wasn't there at the outset. It was hard, harder than McNamara realizes even today, to get out.
Moreover, this was McNamara's war in a way he can never escape, not with a book--or even two: His 1995 In Retrospect admitted that he and his confrères had been wrong, thus ripping open old wounds and forcing the literate class, again, to take sides over his culpability for war crimes. Neither will a study group do it, nor an apology (though one does not seem forthcoming); for, despite the doubts he expressed within the government during his service, he vacillated instead of seeking a showdown with President Lyndon Johnson; he implemented war policies knowing them to be utterly pointless; he did not explain himself candidly to the public or to Congress; and he did not resign. If ever a resignation was called for in the best interests of the country it was his, because of the courageous example this would have set, no matter how publicly thereafter he might or might not have voiced misgivings. His resignation could have stirred a far more constructive debate on the war at a time when most of the Americans and Vietnamese who ultimately died had not yet been killed. But he did not resign. Asked recently by Brian Williams of MSNBC to explain his diffidence, in an incoherent answer he claimed he was in the minority, which, if you consider the steady stream of strategic intelligence expressing skepticism about the war, was patently untrue. McNamara added that it was his "responsibility...to act responsibly." A tortured soul, handicapped by a troubling lack of honesty, he seems bent upon a long-term pilgrimage toward some sort of redemption.
McNamara's study plan--actually a good one--was to bring together for a series of discussions former US and Vietnamese officials from the wartime era plus some US academics. Half a dozen exploratory trips led to two large meetings, held in Hanoi in 1997 and 1998 (a third is planned for this June). Turned into a book, this produced five chapters of abbreviated transcripts interlaced with background material by McNamara and four co-authors, who take varying, ambiguously defined responsibility for it, and two transcript-free chapters on the military aspects of the war and lessons for the future. To each of these seven chapters McNamara contributed an introduction and conclusion. Such a kaleidoscope would have been better organized had McNamara written one long essay, with the body of transcripts then laid out alongside a background history. Nevertheless, one can edit the book while reading for a more focused sense of the discussions, which represent its real innovation. Especially when "learning lessons," McNamara's recapitulations do not capture the full importance, flavor or subtlety of the exchanges.
Apart from McNamara's personal involvement, the project has generated, if not quite a scandal, extremely unusual controversy. Initially the Council on Foreign Relations had sponsored it, but the council's president, Leslie Gelb, withdrew support after receiving critical letters from, among others, Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, twelve other foundations refused to finance it until eventually the Rockefeller Foundation and Brown University stepped forward.