Monday, July 6, 2009

Was McNamara a War Criminal?

"Had we lost, we would have been tried as war criminals," said late Robert Strange McNamara, a former US defense secretary, who died today at age 93. One of the key architects and chief orchestrator of the deadly Vietnam war was quoting his commanding officer General Curtis Le May on the US firebombing of Japan that set entire cities ablaze. Just one night of intense Tokyo bombing by Americans is estimated to have burned 100,000 civilians to death.

Talking about the Vietnam war in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of War", McNamara acknowledged the irreparable damage done by the defoliants, and the human cost of the bombing of Vietnam, where "more bombs were dropped than in the whole of WWII." The Vietnam War cost the United States 58,000 lives and 350,000 casualties. It also resulted in between one and two million Vietnamese deaths.

Here are eleven lessons from the Vietnam War that McNamara spelled out in the "Fog of War" documentary:

1. We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.
2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
4. Our judgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.
5. We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine.
6. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
7. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.
8. After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.
9. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgement of what is in another people's or country's best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.
10. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
11. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

In a 1995 interview with The Associated Press, McNamara confessed that "we of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong." He never admitted responsibility for the Vietnam war but the terrible cost in terms of human life probably haunted him until his death.

After retiring as Defense secretary from the Johnson administration, Mr. McNamara served as the president of the World Bank with the charter to alleviate poverty. In an interview with Doug Saunders of Canada's Globe and Mail, McNamara decided to break his silence on Iraq. When Saunders told him that his carefully enumerated lists of historic lessons from Vietnam were in danger of being ignored, he agreed, and added that he was deeply frustrated to see history repeating itself.

"We're misusing our influence," he said. "It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong."

While he did not want to talk on the record about specific military decisions made Mr. Rumsfeld, he said the United States is fighting a war that he believes is totally unnecessary and has managed to destroy important relationships with potential allies. "There have been times in the last year when I was just utterly disgusted by our position, the United States' position vis-à-vis the other nations of the world."

Will the US leaders learn from America's historical mistakes and the eleven lessons from wars as spelled out by McNamara in the "Fog of War"? I am not too sanguine about it, but I'd like to hope so.

In spite of McNamara's introspection, candor and regrets about his role in Word War II and Vietnam War later in life, it is unlikely that the future historians will judge him kindly.

Here's a video clip from The Fog of War:


ashrafs said...

McNamara deserves kudos for answering that question in the affirmative for himself. Muslims, Islamists, Americans, and others would do well to think about whether they can live up to that level of honesty.

Riaz Haq said...

While I agree with you about his honesty, I think his crimes are unforgivable and his unwelcome legacy is long lasting.

mayqueen said...

He was a criminal. Period

Unknown said...

He knew the war was lost in 67 yet still sent tens of thousands more to their death just to back up his and LBJs ego.Each death was merely quantified and body count has to be the worst strategy ever undertaken.War is a real estate business and war criminals don't always wear uniforms.

Riaz Haq said...

Donald #Rumsfeld’s Fog of Memos. He was ambitious, driven — also lucky. And, as we all know, he was one of the chief architects of the disastrous #IraqWar. #Afghanistan #saddamhussein #GeorgeWBush #MiddleEast

By Errol Morris

Mr. Morris is the director of a 2013 film about Donald Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known.”

It is impossible for me to write about Mr. Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of defense who died on Tuesday, without writing about his memos. He played a role in making memo-writing the new frontier in governmental accountability. He also pioneered the memo as an obfuscatory instrument. Write one memo saying one thing, write another memo saying the exact opposite.

As I interviewed Mr. Rumsfeld for my documentary about him, “The Unknown Known,” it became (at least for me) a story about a man lost in his endless archive, adrift in a sea of his own verbiage.

In 1966, early in his public service career, Representative Rumsfeld, Republican of Illinois, co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act, a vehicle for understanding the intentions of high political figures. Then, as a member of President Gerald Ford’s administration — first as the president’s chief of staff, then as secretary of defense — he found a way to effectively undermine it.

President Richard Nixon was undone by his attempts to conceal and excise the official record. Mr. Rumsfeld knew better by the time he was serving under Mr. Nixon’s successor. The trick was to marginalize the record, to litter it with so many contradictions that a rebuttal to any future historian could always be found. His memos (known as “yellow perils” in the Nixon administration and “snowflakes” under Ford) would pile up in drifts, disguising the underlying historical landscape. It’s a level of genius that has not been acknowledged in the press — the founder of the Freedom of Information Act is the guy who figured out how to render it almost totally worthless.

And what accounts for his seeming change of heart? The metamorphosis from a liberal Rockefeller Republican congressman, a confidant of the civil rights and antiwar activist Allard Lowenstein, to one of the most reviled neoconservatives?

It’s easy to blame everything on opportunism, a swiftly changing environment of success and more success. Vocational greed … I don’t know. But whatever the reason, a new Donald Rumsfeld emerged during the Ford administration.

His first stint as secretary of defense is the start of the story — Team B, in particular. That was an exercise in which a dozen or so defense industry wonks and Russia hawks were given carte blanche to undermine and effectively rewrite the latest National Intelligence Estimate on the Soviet Union, which they argued didn’t reflect the true peril facing America. They called it a “competitive stress assessment” — more confusing verbiage.

How does it work? Put simply, you have a body of evidence. You don’t trust it. Or maybe you don’t like it. It conflicts with other beliefs you have. So you create another body of evidence, supporting your alternative view. I’m tempted to say, an alternative view of the facts. But just what the facts are is exactly what comes into question.