Robert McNamara: The Things He Didn’t Carry

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By no means can all (or most) of the blame for the catastrophic clusterfuck that was Vietnam be placed at the shiny wingtips of Robert McNamara. But his legacy is not subject to debate. Mea culpa, he said, about three decades and a little over 58,000 American casualties (and approximately 8 million Vietnamese, give or take a mil) too late.

In an irony that could only happen in this country, it was right around the time that the documentary The Fog of War was being made that the next generation of the “best and the brightest” (including some throwbacks who famously avoided serving in the previous war they endorsed, such as chickenhawk-in-chief Dick Cheney) were cooking up the propaganda to ensnare us in Iraq. You could watch this movie in spring 2003, then watch the news and see how it works in real time. You expect men like Cheney and his leering band of armchair generals to beat the drums; but you don’t expect men like Colin Powell, who saw the folly (then) and understood the consequences (in ’03) to raise his voice. In that regard, he is a sorry bookend to McNamara representing men who could have done the most to prevent loss of life and did the least.

About the only silver lining one can take from the war and its aftermath (an aftermath that lingers on today) is the humanity the survivors have displayed and the handful of lessons we actually did learn. And, of course, the art. Always the art. Just seeing the news that McNamara passed on to that great war room in the sky made me stop and contemplate the number of songs, books and movies that America’s involvement in Vietnam inspired. I am tempted to begin and end with Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece The Things They Carried, in part because it might just be the perfect (artistic) document of what happened before, during, and after that war. I wonder how many politicians that voted to invade Iraq in 2003 read that book. (I’m not naive enough to suggest that having read it would have put a trivial consideration like innocent lives in the way of political expediency, I’m just genuinely curious how many of them read it. And what type of reaction they had. Or, if they read it (or read it again) now, how it might affect them.)

Here is a quick sampler of some of the more painful, amusing, and enduring snapshots I could grab while thinking about this topic.

 

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