Robert McNamara – R.I.P.

There are, really, no words adequate to describe the emotions surrounding military service in Vietnam.

Tons of them have been used; reams of paper have taken the weight of those words; analysis has been deep and wide over more than forty years.  But as a veteran I think the great analysts on both sides of the divide have tended to use the people who actually served, co-opting them for years in a distinctly perverse way.

We remain speechless.

Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide.

Deep loneliness within the experience and its memories are what linger.  I know.  I was there, and came home, and have felt those things, all of that loneliness – to this day.

In a book on Robert McNamara, written a few years ago, around the time he himself talked about how “wrong, terribly wrong” he was about the Vietnam War, an anecdote within it jumped out at me.  It has stayed with me.  It’s one of those anecdotes that underlines the madness of the era, the madness of being caught up in it as a young American – whether one served in the military, or whether one opposed the war for whatever reason, or reasons, that seemed useful at the time.  Choices were required; choices were made.  We who “came of  age” during that time all live with our choices.

As Tim O’Brien has put it, these are “things we carried,” and carry still.

McNamara was one of those in the Democratic Party establishment who spent a lot of time on the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.  One night, so the story goes, McNamara was on his way to one of the islands, riding a regularly scheduled ferry.  It was at night, possibly raining; but it may not have been a dark and stormy night necessarily.  Anyway, McNamara was sitting in the passenger section of the ferry, wrapped in a jacket or a slicker.  Nearby sat another man.  He might have been a veteran, a former 1960s-era college student, or maybe a working class guy from the Boston area taking in the sea air and a boat ride.  Whoever he was, the man spotted McNamara and immediately became incensed.  Suddenly a crew-member approached McNamara, told him he had a phone call and said he could take it in the wheelhouse.  McNamara, in the manner of a man of some importance, got up and strode out of the passenger cabin and forward along the deck of the ferry, along the edge of the hull.  Right after him followed the man.  The story relates how the man moved quickly behind McNamara and began wrestling with him, apparently intending to throw the former American defense chief into the Atlantic Ocean.  A struggle began, with McNamara fiercely gripping the outer rail, shouting for help and resisting the weight and leverage of the man who was holding him and trying to heave him over.  Almost instantly, some crew members intervened, separating McNamara and the man.  The man was sequestered for the rest of the journey; and it was reported that, upon reaching land, McNamara filed a police report but declined to press charges.

I don’t know what I would have done had I found myself in the company of this particular man, Robert Strange McNamara.  I might have had the urge to throw him into the sea.  I don’t know.  Actually, yes, I would have had such an urge, or at the very least one big enough to scream in his face for about five minutes.  But my habit and tendency over the years, with all of the emotions I’ve felt about serving in the Vietnam War, has been to take a breath and take a hard look at the moment, any moment I might have been in – any funk about that time.  I always took that hard look, and listened just as hard to what was going on, to what people were saying, to remember what I was thinking or feeling – to be sure of what it was.  But like Robert Frost’s man in the woods coming upon a fork on a trail, I usually paused, and tended in my head and heart to walk down the “path less traveled by.”  And that, as Frost said, has “made all the difference.”

However, speaking of differences, it must be said, again and again – for an eternity if necessary:  Vietnam was not like World War II, or Korea – or Iraq or Afghanistan.

Vietnam was like Vietnam.


  1. Time, as it has a habit of doing, has thrown him into the sea for you. He won’t be missed, even after we’ve followed him.

    • rmp says:

      I will remember him because unlike the neocons and war mongers, he did deeply regret his decisions on Vietnam and had the courage to tell the world. I’m glad he had the strength to keep from being thrown overboard and to speak out in a sea of people who never regret their decisions no matter how badly they turn out for others.

      • I’m sorry, rmp, but his so-called regret impressed me as being entirely self-serving. The extended interviews with him in Fog of War confirmed that impression. The only thing he regretted was being marginalized, which he entirely deserved. No marker for his tomb is simple justice, in my opinion.

        • Karen M says:

          Self-serving. Reminds me (without any real militar experience) of that scene in Jane Eyre when her aunt calls sends for her visit her on her death bed… because she doesn’t want to die with the knowledge of how badly she wronged Jane.

          (The film version with Timothy Dalton is excellent, and faithful to the novel.)

        • rmp says:

          I hear what you’re saying, but I didn’t read it as only self-serving. If you were in his shoes and responsible for the millions of death and destruction, you would find it very hard to admit anything near the truth. In his way, he was regretting quite a bit. I will retract my careless use of the word deeply regret. Just to attempt to examine your past in a book, says something positive to me, even if his recollections were still fogged by the enormity of what he had done.

          • dirigo says:

            Sorry, the real problem here is that it was established recently that McNamara, while still in office, came to the conclusion that the war was not winnable.

            And he did nothing.

            The whole problem with the Vietnam War is precisely the rationalistic, managerial spineroo about leadership and the massive verbal architecture surrounding it.

            There has been no way to explain Vietnam. There’s still no way to explain it, and the “leaders” still don’t want to admit it. Not really. They keep at their knitting, piling skein upon skein.

            McNamara was “wrong, terribly wrong.” Thanks for sharing, Bob.

          • Having thought about this, rmp, I have to say that it wasn’t an accident that I wasn’t in McNamara’s shoes, but that isn’t why I blame him.

            People have choices to make, sometimes when they’re very young and ignorant, sometimes when they’ve already been partly compromised. Having been young and ignorant, I’d never blame a Dirigo or Be-bop for their choice to go to Viet Nam, not only because they did their duty as they saw it, but also because by their own efforts, they’ve since overcome a great deal of pain to become men possessed of a peace and wisdom which has often eluded me.

            McNamara I blame, if only because he’s always had choices which weren’t available to the majority, and he’s always chosen in favor of self-aggrandizement, even unto his ninth decade.

          • dirigo says:

            Thanks, W.T.

          • dirigo says:

            Trying to get this to Timberman, as a clarification.

            I did not choose to go to Vietnam. I signed a contract with the Air Force in May 1966, within a month of receiving a draft notice. The Air Force sent me to Vietnam the next year.

            Can’t speak for bop …

  2. rmp says:

    OT Yesterday on my thread we had some discussion on health care reform. Paul Krugman had some positive things to say this morning about one Senate proposal and how it makes good economic sense now that the CBO has released its evaluation. The earlier estimates weren’t as favorable and that is what the Repugs will incessantly talk about.

    HELP Is on the Way

  3. Karen M says:

    Dirigo, I meant to say, too, thanks for this post. It can’t be easy for you to write about McNamara

    • dirigo says:

      Thanks. I hope it’s understood that I’m trying to touch something in an elegiac way: the loneliness and the memory of that time, a time long gone.

      No political speech or analysis that I’ve read has ever gotten to the heart of the matter; and I certainly don’t claim to know what the heart of the matter is with respect to Vietnam.

      Mature voices are required to get this all straight, and I’m wondering now if they’ll ever step forward, or if they’re even there.

      But such voices as there are who are willing to confront the final reckoning of Vietnam will have to be poets.

  4. cocktailhag says:

    Thanks for the post, Dirigo. Paul wanted me to write about McNamara but I’d already seen better stuff out there, and didn’t feel up to the task. Yours is the best yet. My recollection is that McNamara, whose unintentional contribution, the Pentagon Papers, revealed to him as early as ’67 or so that the war was basically over, and we lost. How many guys died after that? While I always applaud introspection and all that, to call his too little too late would be a risible understatement. A bloodless elitist technocrat to the end, war was just another enterprise, like making Ford Falcons, or something. The little people, so many of whom he sent to untimely deaths, couldn’t even be let in on the truth. I also let off a bit of steam when I read that in the runup to Iraq Will Bunch asked him about it, and he wouldn’t comment. Too political.
    He died unredeemed.

    • dirigo says:

      RMP says it well when he talks about the management wizards who were not leaders, seemingly the root of the problem with Vietnam, along with the hubris of American rationality in the formulation of policy. “We thought of it; it must be good.”

      I am a student of classical rhetoric, and the lack of voice shown by these people responsible for Vietnam (and subsequent debacles) is a crime in itself. American leaders can no longer express themselves in ways that make sense beyond rote expressions of ideology and soundbites. They’re all speaking nonsense, every day of the week.

      McNamara wouldn’t comment about Iraq because it was too political? What horseshit.

      By the way, it’s not a stretch to say that from the time McNamara figured out the war was a waste to the time Nixon resigned (1967 -74), about half, or slightly more than half, of the total 58,000 American combat dead in Vietnam were recorded.

      • cocktailhag says:

        The Will Bunch article is worth reading, Dirigo; it’s at HuffPo.
        Ah, yes, the lack of voice…. “mistakes were made” is all I’ve heard my whole damn life.
        That alone would make a great post; our Orwellian use of language.

  5. rmp says:

    Here’s an excellent assessment of McNamara and what we did not learn from him and Vietnam. His role in this drama and how we should view him is not nearly as important as how much our leadership didn’t or refused to learn and the consequence of that failure.

    The Tragedy of Robert McNamara Does Not End With Vietnam

  6. cocktailhag says:

    Dirigo… Joe Galloway at McClatchy just told that same story, and it’s even spicier than you describe…
    Better yet, he quotes Clarence Darrow, “I’ve never killed anyone, but I’ve read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

    • dirigo says:

      Ahh … it was a crazed Vineyard artist, frantically prying McNamara’s fingers from the scuppers, having already gotten him over the rail.

      That is more colorful than my measured account, no doubt.

      • cocktailhag says:

        My mother used to say, “the first liar doesn’t stand a chance.” I found Galloway’s account a bit cinematic, but interesting if true. Too bad we didn’t have camera phones back then.

  7. Jim Montague says:

    Great story Lee, I’ve been AWOL ever since I received an email message from Arne Langsetmo, detailing his new adventure into the southern Caribbean, aboard his (judging from the pic) 46′ catamaran. I wasn’t prepared for such a luxury voyage as his, so I settled for a 10 day trip to the channel islands, out of jealousy. Had a blast and intend to go back as soon as I can.
    I never felt any animosity toward people in government for our 1960′s – 1970′s predicament. I think I was more disturbed by the so called average liberals, both private citizen and elected official, who didn’t have the courage to stand up for and call for an immediate end to the war.
    It seems to me at least, that whenever we deliver an AUMF this country turns bloodthirsty, and it take a ridiculous amount of time to reverse this mindset. If we ever learn anything from that, please let it be the absolute seriousness which we must consider before we deliver that kind of vote in the future.

    • dirigo says:

      Hi, Jim. Nice to hear of your summer adventures.

      I’m not thinking of all this history with animosity necessarily. There is duty to do when required, and I’m okay with that.

      The particular waste associated with this war, and the ways it was exploited – along with the fact that no one can say, even today, why we did it – is hard to deal with.

      All the big opinion kahunas piled on to McNamara over the years and let him carry most of the weight for Vietnam. I’m really not sure that’s fair, and to that extent I’m sorry for him.

      I used the word loneliness to describe my emotions related to this particular war. It became a very lonely trail to walk, and there was a lot loneliness and pain – as well as avoidance and denial – to see along that trail. The more I saw and thought about it, the less it made sense on any level.

      The people who wanted to explain it as just or sensible were the ones who accepted the official line, year in and year out; and they were the ones who would turn their backs on questioners or dissenters, just as has happened again over the last eight years.

      It’s worse today because fewer people are directly involved. The rest, as they say, can go shopping.

  8. dirigo says:

    “Johnson and McNamara should have been looking out for those kids – ”

    – Bob Herbert
    – New York Times, 7/7/09

    That’s it in a nutshell.

  9. Karen M says:

    The contrast in his opening… the young men that McNamara sent off to war, so many of whom died too young or were scarred for life… and yet, McNamara lived to a ripe old age of 93.

    My grandmother lived to be 93. She was a useful, cheerful, and service-oriented person…

    Reading Will Bunch’s piece I could only think that after living for years with the knowledge of what he’d done, McNamara’s real tragedy was in not speaking out before the Iraq Invasion. Apparently, he didn’t learn any lessons either.

    The Daily Beast article makes me think that perhaps spread sheets have done as much damage to the world as the internal combustion engine, if it’s true that McNamara was as much accountant as architect.

  10. Karen M says:

    I finally read the Galloway piece at McClatchy. Wow!

  11. Karen M says:

    And I just learned that McNamara’s son (who goes by the name of Craig, having dropped the first name, Robert) protested the Vietnam War.

    • dirigo says:

      This can sound far-fetched, or over the top, or just plain nutty to pragmatic Americans who, like McNamara, are “results-oriented” and “goal-driven,” or whatever.

      But in my time trying to make sense of my service in Vietnam (mostly during the immediate period of the “homecoming”), there were, here and there, some moments when I felt that we, all of us, were hurtling through a rip in the universe; and that one group of people who didn’t grasp what was going on were the political leaders and their acolytes who set it motion.

      Sounds a bit hippie-ish I know (I watched Star Trek, in black and white, in transmissions from the AFN in Saigon), but that’s what it felt like at certain high moments. You had to be there …

      Led by McNamara, the pied piper, these people thought they controlled the carnage they had set loose.

      Not so …

      • Karen M says:

        I keep coming across more opinions on McNamara… this one from Robert Scheer (formerly of the LA Times), now of

        Somehow, his Irish DNA seems not to have taken hold; perhaps it was too much time working for Ford, but in general, being Irish means taking the side of the underdog. Maybe his family was Protestant when in Ireland, though. That might have made a difference.

  12. Dirigo, thanks. I got the message, but it seems we’ve exceeded the Hag’s default reply-to indent limits, so I’ll stick my acknowledgment down here.

    I wasn’t trying to be so precise. What I meant was something more like: when they sent you, you went. As opposed to not going. Both were choices, but neither were exactly what I’d call a free choice, in that there were penalties either way which, in a saner society, wouldn’t have applied.

  13. dirigo says:

    More on the Tonkin Gulf incident and McNamara’s role in it …