Monday, April 17, 2006

Iraq I: A Tale of Two Defense Secretaries

LBJ and Defense Secretary McNamara shortly before his 1968 ouster.

The war in Iraq has defied most Vietnam analogies, and while there are similarities between the two conflicts, there are more differences.

But there is one appropriate comparison that is smacking us right in the kisser these days: The management styles of the secretaries of defense in both wars.

Robert McNamara, like Donald Rumsfeld, was a micromanager whose inflexible views were stamped all over the U.S.'s disastrous Vietnam war policy. While McNamara did not have to face the unprecedented public criticism of retired generals as has Rumsfeld, his field commanders resented his hand's-on style and believed that he was fettering their effectiveness on the battlefield.

President Johnson, no fool but his own, understood this and eased out McNamara in 1968 after seven years in the job. (He had been JFK's first and only defense secretary.) LBJ replaced McNamara with Clark Clifford, who knew that the war could not be won in any traditional sense and had become a political nightmare.

It was Clifford who began the long and painful process of disengaging the U.S. from Vietnam. A "mere" 18,000 Americans had died when McNamara was sent packing; 37,000 more were to perish before the war officially ended in 1975.

Even President Bush, who does not have a fraction of LBJ's smarts, must understand that the generals have put him in a no-win situation.

To keep Rumsfeld is to risk further criticism from the retired brass -- and it is sure to come, while the usual "if you criticize us you're unpatriotic" pushback used against war dissenters getslittle traction here. But no matter how it is prettied up, easing Rumsfeld out would be an acknowledgement that his war policy -- which is to say the administration's -- has been a fiasco, and this White House just isn't very good at acknowledging failure.


Rumsfeld may yet have a change of heart, but it is difficult to imagine that he will have the decency to admit in retirement what McNamara did -- that he was wrong.

In an extraordinary turn of events, McNamara did just that in 1996 with his bestselling book, "In Retrospect : The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam."

"In Retrospect" was a stinging indictment of American policy in Vietnam -- which is to say McNamara's own policy. The memoir showed him to be a deeply humbled man who believed at the time that he was doing the right thing but understood in hindsight that his judgement had been terribly wrong.

I was asked to review the book and found myself intellectually and emotionally torn.

While I recognized and praised McNamara's decency and noted his secret efforts to find a way out of Vietnam, I could not forgive him a nightmare that had sundered my generation and taken the lives of good friends, several of whom succumbed to their physical and emotional wounds only in recent years.

As awkward as it was, I ended up praising the book but not the man.

Perhaps I am too hard on Rumseld, but my loathing of him is visceral and has deep roots. I cannot imagine him summoning the courage to admit, as did McNamara, that he was wrong.

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