The last of the "Best and the Brightest"

cc44262The Vietnam War is the kind of history that makes you want to plunge your hands into the pages of a history book, grab a Johnson or a McNamara by the throat, and shout “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING OF?”

Smart people do stupid things. They just do. Robert S. McNamara was a brilliant man who did a dumb thing. As Secretary of Defense, he tried to run a war like a Wall Street banker, all body counts and statistics and charts. Next time the Pentagon announces we’re winning in Iraq because we added 36 megawatts of capacity to the national power grid, think McNamara.

Also like a Wall Street banker, McNamara thought he was winning when he was actually going bankrupt. Where Lehman Brothers bet on mortgage derivatives, McNamara bet that we could kill Viet Cong faster than new ones could pop up. He lost.  He bet we could use bombs as carrots and sticks to induce Hanoi to abandon its war against South Vietnam. Wrong again.

The U.S. fought Vietnam as if it were fighting Soviets tanks in Germany instead of sandal-clad peasants in the jungle. Too late – just as we realized in Iraq too late – we were using sledgehammers when tweezers were required. The tragedy of Vietnam was that the lessons in counterinsurgency so painfully learned were discarded and forgotten, only to be relearned in Iraq.

McNamara doesn’t deserve to be the fall guy for Vietnam. Many cooks stirred that napalm-charred debacle, going back to FDR, Truman and (of course) France. But Vietnam wasn’t just the wrong war. It was also the a war that was fought in the wrong way (just like Iraq in 2003-6), and McNamara bore some responsibility for that.

Perhaps the reason for history’s harsh judgment is that he was a poster child for how the Best and the Brightest can turn out to be anything but. Smart people do dumb things, and that’s a lesson that the Obama administration should remember. Obama is smart, his team is smart, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that power, money and technology will win in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he McNamara found out, the enemy has a say in that, and often a veto.

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5 Responses to The last of the "Best and the Brightest"

  1. Brian In NYC says:

    Ok Michael I’ll bite. FDR? How so?

    • Michael Peck says:

      FDR opposed colonialism and wanted the European empires to grant their colonies independence, including French Indochina. That created a fair amount of tension between the Western Allies during WWII, because the British and French were maneuvering to beat the Nazis while still trying to retain their colonies after the war.

      • Brian In NYC says:

        Yeah but that really doesn’t warrant your claim that some of the blame for Vietnam falls on FDR’s shoulders. It’s a bit of leap you’re making their Michael. Interesting, though not surprising that you omitted Eisenhower and Dullus.

  2. Michael Hastings says:

    Great points.

    I read McNamara’s memoir a few years back, and I liked the Errol Morris documentary on him. He didn’t apologize and his interest really wasn’t in apologizing(and on some level, an apology is fairly meaningless once such damage is done.) It was, as he said to Morris, to study the history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. What is rather discouraging, as you note, is that we seemed to have repeated a very similar mistake in Iraq, and seem to be heading down that path in Afghanistan.

    McNamara said something else of interest–sometimes you make the same mistake two or three or four times, but maybe you don’t make it the fifth time. I wonder how many more mistakes we have left in us.

    McNamara tried to explain and understand the history of how increasing involvement in Vietnam by describing the context: Cold War, coming out of WWII, Pay of Pigs, Berlin, nuclear annihilation looming. Very dangerous times, he insisted. When we look back on Iraq and Afghanistan, the folks involved are going to use a similar set of explanations. 9-11, jihadism, nuclear terrorism, WMD’s. Very dangerous times.

    • Michael Peck says:

      America’s problem is that we’re big, and we always fight our wars overseas, so that we’re spared the consequences of our mistakes. Vietnam was humiliating, Iraq was a fiasco, but neither really harmed us in the way that World War II impoverished Europe. We will keep making mistakes because we can afford to make them, though that may be changing as American power ebbs.

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