Sunday, February 29, 2004

The Fog of War 

Saw Robert McNamara memoir/documentary The Fog of War tonight. The film puts a human face on the much-vilified Vietnam-era secretary of defense. While I recommend the film, its almost comically positive portrayal of McNamara is a major flaw. Based only on the film I would be left with impression that McNamara saw the quagmire coming and worked to get US troops out of Vietnam as quickly as possible, but was overruled by a foolish and ignorant President Johnson. This impression is achieved by selectively quoting McNamara's conversations with the president in which he expresses his misgivings about the conflict. Despite these private misgivings, McNamara played a key role in the escalation of the war. When asked who should bear responsibility for the Vietnam war, McNamara shamelessly shifts the blame entirely onto LBJ's shoulders, saying Kennedy would not have allowed the conflict to escalate in the same way. Regardless, the secretary of defense ought to accept some responsibility for wars conducted during his tenure!

McNamara declined to answer most of the tougher questions put to him, and answered others with platitudes. "Every military commander makes mistakes" was a common refrain. I was particularly disappointed by McNamara's refusal to discuss why he didn't speak out against the war in 1968 after he was fired for opposing further escalation. He also seemed to resort quite often to end-justifies-the-means type arguments: "in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil." As a justification for his role in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 this argument had its merits. But McNamara's attempts to apply this type of reasoning to Vietnam fall flat. Most frustrating was McNamara's recollection of "nearly coming to blows" with a Vietnamese scholar who explained that from his perspective, the Vietnam war was a struggle for independence against colonial powers -- first Japan, then France, and finally the United States. Despite his obvious regrets, McNamara has not shed his Cold Warrior mentality. To him, Vietnam was a domino, the Vietnam war was a war of ideology, and the end of anticommunism justified the means.
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