May 12, 1995


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Some one had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of death

Rode the six hundred.

Alfred Lord Tennyson(1809-1892)

Robert McNamara was Secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, during the Viet Nam War. In a recently published book, he admits that he was wrong in doing what he did about the Viet Nam War -that he was mistaken. He was a prime mover in the escalation of a war that some called "McNamara's war" -a war that the U.S. lost, and lost big.That war cost over three and a half million lives. (I haven't read the book. I have read a number of abstracts and have heard McNamara speak a number of times).

It took some integrity and courage to admit to that mistake. I have great difficulty admitting my piddling little mistakes. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like to own up to a mistake of that magnitude. I would stew for all of my life if I had cost the life of a single individual. I don't know whether I could go on living with over three and a half million lives on my conscience. Their silent screams would likely drive me mad.

As I remember it, the decision makers had little reliable information about Viet Nam at the time. There were people who were strongly in favor of the war, and others who were strongly opposed to it. One critical question was whether that war could be won. It was only when New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury reported on his visit to North Viet Nam, that the problem was clarified. He supported his opinion well, that short of destroying the entire country, the war could not be won. This put the matter in a very different perspective and, before too long, our country essentially gave up -as the French had before them.

McNamara was a businessman before he entered government. He was chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. What was there about his previous employment that qualified him for his government job as Secretary of Defense and qualified him to help make government policy? Aside from his intelligence, what other qualifications did he have? I have heard businessmen, large and small, articulate the belief that being a successful businessman qualifies someone for just about anything. Some writers believe the same thing. These businessmen range from Ross Perot to many who have been appointed to all sorts of government bodies. I sure wouldn't want a businessman removing my appendix, nor would I want him in any policy making position in government without a long apprenticeship. Intelligence is not enough!

There is a Greek word, "hubris," which my dictionary defines as "wanton arrogance arising from overbearing pride or from passion." It seems to me that that word describes Robert McNamara, as it does many other people in positions of power.

Making intelligent decisions requires reliable information -and lots of it. It is now apparent that the prime movers in our government at the time of the Viet Nam war had no such information. They were essentially playing hunches. They lost; but not as much as the millions who died in Viet Nam.

Lastly, I ask myself: what kind of person can be partly responsible for the loss of over three and a half million lives and then go on to write a book and go on TV programs and talk about it?

McNamara says that he has written the book in an attempt to prevent our country from making the same mistake again. I believe that he is sincere in this rationalization, as are all people who rationalize. I suspect that if he looked much deeper, he would find the same desire for power and the need for recognition that drives many of us -and McNamara is much more driven than most.

Mistakes are inevitable. The higher the position, the more costly the mistakes. Those mistakes are usually not very costly to the people who make them. Not only are there no consequences, but people in high places who makes big mistakes are often rewarded with cushy, high paying jobs.

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