The 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.