PORTLAND, ORE.--Robert McNamara, one of the "best and the brightest" technocrats behind the escalation of the Vietnam War, eventually came to regret his actions. But his public contrition, which included a book and a series of interviews for the documentary The Fog of War, were greeted with derision.
"Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen," editorialized The New York Times in 1995. "Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late."
McNamara's change of heart came 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives too late. If the dead could speak, surely they would ask: Why couldn't you see then what you understand so clearly now? Why didn't you listen to the millions of experts, journalists and ordinary Americans who knew that death and defeat would be the only outcome?
Though Errol Morris' film served as ipso facto indictment, its title was yet a kind of justification. There is no "fog of war." There is only hubris, stubbornness and the psychological compartmentalization that allows a man to sign papers that will lead others to die before going home to play with his children.
McNamara is dead. President Barack Obama is his successor.
Some call McNamara's life tragic. Tragedy-inducing is closer to the truth. Yes, he suffered guilt in his later years. "He wore the expression of a haunted man," wrote the author of his Times obit. "He could be seen in the streets of Washington [D.C.]--stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind--walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare." But the men and women and boys and girls blown up by bombs and mines and impaled by bullets and maimed in countless ways deserve more vengeance than a pair of ratty Nikes. Neither McNamara nor LBJ nor the millions of Americans who were for the war merit understanding, much less sympathy.
Now Obama is following the same doomed journey.
"We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes," McNamara warned long after the fact, speaking of "America's enemies" but really just about people--people who live in other countries. People whose countries possess reserves of natural gas (Vietnam) or oil (Iraq) or are situated between energy reserves and deep-sea ports where oil tankers dock (Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Why can't President Obama imagine himself living in a poor village in Pakistan? Why can't he feel the anger and contempt felt by Pakistanis who hear pilotless drone planes buzzing overhead, firing missiles willy-nilly at civilians and guerilla fighters alike, dispatched by a distant enemy too cowardly to put live soldiers and pilots in harm's way?
"We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo--men, women and children," McNamara said. "LeMay said, 'If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals.' And I think he's right. He--and I'd say I--were behaving as war criminals." In all, 900,000 Japanese civilians died.
At least Japan started the war. What of Afghanistan and Iraq, where approximately 2 million civilians have been killed by U.S. forces? Neither country attacked us. Shouldn't George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest be prosecuted as war criminals? Why not Obama? After all, Obama is leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq after the war there is supposedly coming to an end. He's escalating the unjustifiable, unwinnable tragedy in Afghanistan--there are 68,000 U.S. troops there now, probably going up to 100,000 by next year--while spreading the conflict into Pakistan.
"Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan," concluded the Atlantic Council in 2008. Things have only gotten worse as U.S. troop presence has increased: more violence, more drugs, less reconstruction.
Like McNamara, Obama doesn't understand a basic truth: You can't successfully manage an inherently doomed premise. Colonialism is dead. Occupiers will never enjoy peace. Neither the Afghans nor the Iraqis nor the Pakistanis will rest until we withdraw our forces. The only success we will find is in accepting defeat sooner rather than later.
"What went wrong [in Vietnam] was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese," McNamara said in his Berkeley oral history. Today's domino theory is Bush's (now Obama's) clash of civilizations, the argument that unless we fight them "there," we will have to fight them here. Afghanistan and Iraq don't present security threats to the United States. The presence of U.S. troops and drone planes, on the other hand ...
In fairness to McNamara, it only took two years for him to call an end to the bombing of North Vietnam. By 1966, he was advising LBJ to start pulling back. But, like a gambler trying to recoup and justify his losses, the president kept doubling down. "We didn't know our opposition," concluded McNamara. "So the first lesson is know your opponents. I want to suggest to you that we don't know our potential opponents today."
Actually, it's worse than that. Then, like now, we don't have opponents. We create them.
Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?