Richard Reeves

McNamara: The Smartest Fool

LOS ANGELES -- In the military, after action or a mission, officers are required to file "Lessons Learned" reports, basically reviewing what worked and what did not. From 1961 to 1968, the most important of those reports were sent to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, possibly the smartest fool ever to serve at the highest level of government in the United States.

What lessons are to be learned from the long life of McNamara, who died last week at the age of 93?

1. Smart doesn't always count. Judgment counts. Honesty counts, with yourself and others.

2. Outlive your enemies. History is easier to spin if there are fewer surviving witnesses to what actually happened. In McNamara's case, there were just too many witnesses and too many enemies. Me, among them.

3. Don't believe every number you hear.

4. Don't believe memos unsent or memos "to the file" or "for the record."

5. Deathbed confessions and conversions are, to say the least, the cheapest coin of character.

To begin with numbers, and remembering that McNamara was the chief salesman of body counts as a measure of military success in Vietnam, even the Central Intelligence Agency, that paragon of honest numerics, tried to raise an alarm about Pentagon numbers. In a year-end National Intelligence Estimate, certainly read by President Kennedy, the CIA said this:

"Various statistics indicate government progress against the Viet Cong during 1962, but these can be misleading. ... Viet Cong casualties during 1962 were reported at more than 30,000, including some 21,000 killed in action. Yet current Viet Cong strength is estimated at 22,000-24,000 regulars, as opposed to an estimated 17,600 last June. This suggests either that the casualty figures are exaggerated or that the Viet Cong have a remarkable replacement capability -- or both."

Or, the numbers were made up. It would have been interesting to see how McNamara explained such things to President Kennedy.

On Dec. 21, 1963, the secretary of defense returned from a trip to Vietnam and wrote a "Memo for the Record" stating, among other things:

"There is no organized government in South Vietnam at this time. ... It is abundantly clear that statistics received over the past year or more from the Government of Viet Nam officials and reported by the US mission on which we gauged the trend of the war were grossly in error. ... The Viet Cong control larger percentages of the population, greater amounts of territory, and have destroyed or occupied more strategic hamlets than expected. ... In my judgment, there are more reasons to doubt the future of the effort under present programs or moderate extensions to existing programs than there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of our cause in South Vietnam."

Then McNamara went out and assured the American people we were winning -- for four more years. It was 32 more years, in 1995, before, in a confessional interview with Robert Scheer of The Los Angeles Times:

"Look, we dropped three to four times the tonnage on that tiny little area as were dropped by the Allies in all of the theaters in World War II over a period of five years. It was unbelievable. We killed -- there were killed -- 3,200,000 Vietnamese, excluding the South Vietnamese military. My God! The killing, the tonnage -- it was fantastic. The problem was that we were trying to do something that was militarily impossible -- we were trying to break the will; I don't think we can break the will by bombing short of genocide."

He still thought in numbers. "Where is your data?" he used to say. "Don't give me your poetry."

He should have listened to the poetry. We should be listening to the poetry now, particularly in Afghanistan, where new generations of policy analysts, men not so different from McNamara -- men who have not learned the lessons of Vietnam -- are again trying to break the will of people who are very, very different from all of us. Men who have been there for thousands of years and will be there for thousands more. Rudyard Kipling wrote the outsider poetry of that hard part of the world:

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,

"And the women come out to cut up what remains.

"Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.

"And go to your Gawd like a soldier. A soldier of the Queen."

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