Rolling Thunder: the Rerun
Thanks in no small measure to McNamara's struggle with himself through this project, we can consider in a new light how negotiable outcomes satisfactory to both sides regularly get overlooked in a conflict: In Vietnam, how the United States failed to see throughout the fifties and sixties that Hanoi had genuine desires for a neutral solution, or how Washington projected its own highly centralized decision-making onto the Vietnamese, thus misinterpreting attacks at the local level as evidence of Hanoi's signals. In Yugoslavia, how the United States has failed to communicate at a high level, sending sporadic, almost desultory messages to Belgrade. How the United States has failed to apply realistic pressure in a genuine context of multilateral decision-making. And how the United States has failed to acknowledge that some problems in international affairs--like the lack of democracy in the Balkans--have no solution, particularly no military solution.
But it is bombing that links Vietnam to Yugoslavia forever, bombing that is the chief obstacle to peace. Asked about the war against Yugoslavia, the crusty Vietnam hand Chet Cooper dismissed it as "amateurs at play." McNamara, speaking to Brian Williams, noted that the analogy to counterproductive bombing in Vietnam applies "to a considerable degree in Serbia/Yugoslavia today." McNamara now emphasizes the need for bombing to be supplemented by a robust diplomatic effort. (Without having learned his own lessons, however, he counsels continued bombing until some diplomatic breakthrough is reached.)
Yesterday's fear of Communism and talk of falling dominoes is mirrored perfectly in today's rhetoric about making the twenty-first century "safe from ethnic cleansing." Yet neither concept can be connected in any meaningful way to bombing or the effects of bombing upon its recipients. Like a repeat of Guernica, augmented by cluster bombs, cruise missiles and other assorted modern high explosives, the reality of bombing for the hundreds or thousands of innocent Serbs and Albanians whose lives it takes is something that should be intuitively obvious to much of the American public. Most probably also realize that officials who sing the praises of bombing are eliding the truth. Nevertheless, it is mind-bogglingly difficult to articulate how fully divorced our government's actions are from reality. McNamara notices this, quoting Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times: "When we talk about Vietnam," Lelyveld said (referring to Americans), "we are seldom talking about the country of that name or the situation of the people who live there. Usually we are talking about ourselves. Probably we always were."
If the war in Vietnam was about America's identity in a generic sense, it was also about the personalities of certain individuals. How fitting, then: The judgment McNamara most wishes to avoid--that he bears great responsibility for the Vietnam War and still doesn't see where he went wrong--teaches us the most important lesson. People incapable of perceiving (let alone understanding) moral connections may be superbly proficient at escalating their way into wars but lacking any clue about how to end them. Bloodless technocrats and careerists cannot be part of the solution. If there is any way to reforge the link between actions and consequences it must, as Vietnam policy-making eventually did, run through a more serious public dialogue about morality. And to do that, religious and spiritual leaders--like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose trip to Belgrade helped secure freedom for three American POWs--people with broader knowledge of human experience, who transcend hate to embrace forgiveness, must take a more active role in exploring alternatives.
What, MSNBC's Williams asked McNamara, is the most important trait an aide to the President should have? "Honesty," he replied. Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, McNamara had fielded a related question from the Washington Post's Paul Hendrickson. "Now was I 'deceiving' the American people? Well, that's a very interesting question, but first you'd have to define for me what you mean by deception." He continued, "Deception isn't the Vietnam problem at all. You see, the American people are not going to elect deceivers, and a president of the United States is not going to surround himself with liars. It just doesn't happen in the normal run of things."
But nothing--nothing--should be considered normal about the world's only superpower bombing tiny countries. It would be heartbreaking, truly unforgivable for those responsible, if after losing the air war NATO charged ahead to lose, perhaps after long occupation, a ground war as well.