What Is True/Slant?
275+ knowledgeable contributors.
Reporting and insight on news of the moment.
Follow them and join the news conversation.

Jul. 7 2009 - 11:20 am | 53 views | 2 recommendations | 26 comments

Media waxes poetic over architect of pointless war

Robert McNamara (Image from trulyequal.wordpress.com)

Robert McNamara (Image from trulyequal.wordpress.com)

Well, Robert McNamara, the architect of the failed Vietnam war, died this week. As expected, every chickenhawk began hammering away at their keyboards as part of a desperate race to be the first to link their sad lives to McNamara, which is really like handcuffing one’s self to a fiery runaway train. 

David Ignatius nostalgically reminisces about the time his father, Paul Ignatius, joined the Pentagon team in 1961 and became a close aide to McNamara. So add “Paul Ignatius” to the list of people to blame for Vietnam along with McNamara. 

In addition to the sickening hero worship of a man partially responsible for the deaths of between 2 and 5 million civilians and 58,000 American soldiers, the media does not mention that the United States government has new war architects, who have also failed as McNamara failed, and also deserve our collective derision for their hubris. We shouldn’t wait until after they die to hold them accountable for their actions.

Jim Hoagland interviewed Alex Frank, who is apparently some dude in an infantry officer training course, about counterinsurgency working in Afghanistan. Surprise! Frank totally thinks it can work, adding, ”In McNamara’s day, everybody in the administration went along with the same line. There was no arguing out of positions. It was all ‘just get the stuff and the soldiers over there and the conflict will sort itself out.’ That is not true today.”

Poor Alex Frank apparently blacked out for the eight years George W. Bush dismissed dissidents who second-guessed his decisions. There is the famous example of retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, current Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who formerly was the Army Chief of Staff in the Bush Administration. Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take several hundred thousand troops in Iraq, and his comments were immediately challenged and dismissed as “wildly off the mark” by the Department of Defense’s Paul Wolfowitz.

Tolerating a variety of political ideologies was not the Bush administration’s (or Dubya’s) strong suit. During his father’s presidential term, Dubya fired the White House chief of staff, John Sununu. “The abrasive Sununu, George W. believed, simply didn’t have his father’s best interests at heart,” according to The Austin Chronicle’s Robert Bryce.

But while the media pines over the pointless destruction of the Vietnam, no one is pointing out the rather obvious connections between Vietnam and the currents wars in the Middle East in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why do we have to wait for war architects to die before publicly acknowledging their gargantuan fuck-ups? 

There are some very much alive war architects in our midst that deserve public trials, and probably jail time, as McNamara himself acknowledged while he was still alive. “We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children,” Mr. McNamara recalled; some 900,000 Japanese civilians died in all. “[Gen. Curtis E.] LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.”

As many as 1.3 million Iraqi civilians and upwards of 20,000 Afghan civilians may have died during the US-led invasions in addition to 5,500 American troops. If McNamara was a war criminal — as he confessed he was — then so too is Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and a litany of other Bush appointees that led the country to war over a lie. And unlike McNamara, these war criminals are very much alive and ready for their trials.

If McNamara has supposedly taught us valuable lessons about hubris, he’s also taught us that government officials should be held accountable for their crimes.


Active Conversation
2 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 26 Total Comments
Post your comment »
  1. collapse expand

    I wonder what will be said of Henry Kissinger when he dies, because as I’m sure you know he is quite the war criminal himself while he was apart of the Nixon and Ford administrations and he doesn’t even think he did anything wrong.

  2. collapse expand

    I’m sure he would. I think that they would applause the fact that he(undeserving) won the Nobel peace prize and his so called great diplomacy skills. Also they would mention that he became a sex symbol(why? I don’t know.)and that he was a proponent of “Realpolitik” Ideology, which is the reason why he doesn’t care about what he helped do. But there would be no mention of his involvement in the bombing of Cambodia or his involvement in the Chilean coup d’état or any of the other terrible things that he did.

  3. collapse expand

    Allison, how would one fight an enemy like the Nazis or Imperial Japan, without behaving like a “war criminal”? That is, making war without hurting civilians?

    • collapse expand

      First: what do Vietnamese civilians have to do with Nazis or Japan? Rice farmers probably weren’t concerned with the spread of the Communist ideology.

      Second: It’s never acceptable to kill civilians, and so war crimes were also committed during WW2. Howard Zinn also talks about how he was sent on a mission during the war to bomb a tiny town on the Atlantic coast of France called Rohan, near Bordeaux. It wasn’t until after the mission that he realized the war was almost over, and bombing the village accomplished nothing other than killing lots of innocent civilians. That was when he began his life as a peace advocate.

      We have to start weighing the “accomplishments” of war against the cost of civilian lives. What did we accomplish in Vietnam that was worth sacrificing millions of lives?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    If it’s never acceptable to kill civilians, then how does one fight an enemy who hides his troops among civilians, as the Viet Cong and Hamas did? Is it forbidden to bomb factories where weapons are produced, even though the factory workers are civilians?

    And here’s a thought experiment. If you were an inmate at Auschwitz, and destroying German cities might free you before you were gassed to death, would you favor such bombing?

    • collapse expand

      Michael – The claims that the Viet Cong and Hamas “hide among civilians” has been widely challenged:

      In the specific case of Gaza, a huge population is forced into an incredibly tiny strip of land, so Hamas has no choice but to live among civilians. The United States and Israel claim Hamas is “using civilians as shields,” but in reality, human rights groups have only been able to document cases of Israel using Palestinians as human shields. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jc0DHbDsRG83m4stW9JdpHz3hxSw

      In addition, how does one tell apart civilians from insurgents when one isn’t fighting a uniformed army? Is a 12-year-old child, who picks up a gun to avenge the death of his entire family, suddenly an insurgent? How did the US military distinguish the Viet Cong and Hamas?

      You act as if all of the destruction and civilian lives lost during WW2 occurred solely to free the inmates at Auschwitz. Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the twentieth-century British military historian, describes the west’s involvement in WW2:

      “The Western Allies entered the war with a two-fold object. The immediate purpose was to fulfill their promise to preserve the independence of Poland . The ultimate purpose was to remove a potential menace to themselves, and thus ensure their own security. In the outcome, they failed in both purposes. Not only did they fail to prevent Poland from being overcome in the first place, and partitioned between Germany and Russia , but after six years of war which ended in apparent victory they were forced to acquiesce in Russia ’s domination of Poland – abandoning their pledges to the Poles who had fought on their side.”

      Howard Zinn describes the war:

      In fact, Hitler’s Germany was defeated, first and foremost, by the Soviet Union . Some 70-80 percent of German combat forces were destroyed by the Soviet military on the Eastern front. The D-Day landing in France by American and British forces, which is often portrayed in the United States as a critically important military blow against Nazi Germany, was launched in June 1944 — that is, less than a year before the end of the war in Europe, and months after the great Soviet military victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, which were decisive in Germany’s defeat.

      Paul Fussell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who served in World War II as a US Army lieutenant, wrote in his acclaimed book Wartime that “the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.” / 13

      An important feature of this “sanitized” view is the belief that whereas the Nazi German regime was responsible for many terrible war crimes and atrocities, the Allies, and especially the United States , waged war humanely. In fact, the record of Allied misdeeds is a long one, and includes the British-American bombing of German cities, a terroristic campaign that took the lives of more than half a million civilians, the genocidal “ethnic cleansing” of millions of civilians in eastern and central Europe, and the large-scale postwar mistreatment of German prisoners. / 14

      It’s, of course, important to stress that the Nazis committed atrocities, but that doesn’t excuse leveling multiple nations. Civilians aren’t uniformed soldiers, and so they should not be “fair targets.”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Wow, that last quote from Fussell is brand new to me.
    But to change the subject away from academics for a sec.. I remember watching The Fog of War the first time, and (god-help-me) feeling ambivalent with a squirt of soft sentiment. Seeing old man Maccy walk away from the camera to the beat of charming music.

    I watched it again recently and broke that spell, thinking.. wait: FUCK this guy! He had his hand on the kill button and HELD DOWN.

    I do appreciate the approach to the documentary, and I’m sure Bobby McNamara wouldn’t have down the interview on other terms. Coming from a critical thinker, I can see how sheeple can feel lovingly confused about the whole ordeal.

    “Well, crazy ol McNamara, he just tried to do his best.. he had it rough alright..”

  6. collapse expand

    Allison, there’s so much pick-and-choose morality, I don’t know where to start. You’ve created a tautology where any violence is a war crime. Let’s begin with the fundamental question that you didn’t answer: Is it permissible to kill civilians during wartime? If not, then explain how a nation can wage war without hurting innocents. If you were a guerrilla, Commandante Allison, wouldn’t you hide in the villages rather than get blasted in an open field battle? And if you do hide among them, do you really expect your opponent to throw up his hands and walk away because they might hurt civilians? That’s a poor judgment of human nature.

    And let’s take your example of a 12-year-old insurgent with a gun. Is he a legitimate target if he fights for the fascist oppressor, but not a legitimate target if he fights for the People’s Revolution? How does one decide who is a legitimate target? Better yet, who decides? Why do I get the feeling that it’s only the “progressive” people who set the rules?

    I think the authors you cited are justifiably chafing against the “Good War” and “Greatest Generation” nonsense. The Allies weren’t always the Good Guys, but they were better guys than
    the Nazis and the Soviets. Moral relativism is just as bad as militarism. If everyone is equally bad, then we have to believe that the world would be no worse if Hitler had won. Would you make that argument?

    • collapse expand

      I’m being morally consistent in that I’m using the definition of “war crime” as defined by the Nuremberg Principles:

      Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

      You’re being dishonest in your summation of my stance on violence. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, self-defense (on a person-to-person basis) is not a war crime. However, the preemptive attack of Iraq by the US is a war crime because, according to the Nuremberg Principles, the murder of innocent civilians is a war crime.

      It’s impossible not to commit war crimes during a massive war among civilians, which is why war crimes have been documented in every war since we began keeping records of these atrocities. It’s also why I agree with Noam Chomsky that if the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.

      Let’s reverse the occupier-occupied example and pretend China has invaded the United States. Would you consider 12-year-old Americans who have taken up arms to fight the oppressor “fair targets?” Or is the real villain in this scenario the occupier, who has no business invading a sovereign nation, and who should therefore expect this kind of resistance? Furthermore, shouldn’t the occupier then expect to be held accountable by international law once the dust has settled and the “war” is over?

      The Nuremberg Principles were created to give a very clear guideline for what can and cannot happen during armed conflict. Unfortunately, the United States government thinks the rules apply to everyone except them.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Allison, Michael:

    I’ve been kicking around some ideas about the above exchange, mostly half-baked and unhinged, so just wanted to start with that caveat.

    My basic idea is this: there are no civilians anymore. I think WWII shredded the concept, and our conflicts since then (on all sides, whether its suicide bombings targeting schools or drone strikes whacking Pakistanis or a Cold War with nuclear arsenals that if used would have made no such distinction) have shown that the civilian/military divide is perhaps anachronistic. Or maybe a necessary illusion is a better way to put it.

    War means killing tons of civilians. War usually means more civilians get killed than soldiers. Soldiers, generally, have better weapons and bunkers. Though we claim there are moral reasons why we now try in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid killing civilians, the more important reason is strategic–it’s seen as counterproductive to kill civilians of a nation when you’re trying to build a nation. But, as we’ve shown with our Pakistani drone strikes, we don’t care too much, when we believe our national security is threatened, to kill scores of civilians without losing much sleep over it.

    In WWII, our leaders made a similar calculation–to defeat our enemies, we have to kill a lot of them. To do so, we totally destroyed their nations before we built them again. This was a huge tragedy, certainly. Could we have won the WWII without doing so? Probably, but our leaders preferred to err on the side of more bombs and more bombing runs, as McNamara suggests, following the better safe than sorry school of thought.

    Was this immoral, and are we hypocrites about it? Probably, but how would the wheels of civilization turn without the grease of hypocrisy?

    Was Zinn’s Catch 22 bombing run stupid? Is Fussell correct to say we’ve whitewashed our WWII atrocities? Yes, and yes. And I would add Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke to the above reading list.

    The strategy of targeting civilians probably predates WWII in U.S. history. Our main man, General William T. Sherman, decided the best (and most humane) way to end the Civil War was to go rampage through the South and get the bastards where they slept and farmed and lived. He concluded that lining up his men against the men of the other side to keeping shooting each other was a kind of madness in itself, and that could go on for years, unless he marched on Atlanta, torch in hand. It’s not too big of leap from Atlanta to Hiroshima to Hanoi, really…

    • collapse expand

      Was this immoral, and are we hypocrites about it? Probably, but how would the wheels of civilization turn without the grease of hypocrisy?

      If that’s the standard for humanity, then we’re in a lot of trouble. Hypocrisy makes diplomacy impossible. It sets double standards, and explains why America is so hated by the rest of the planet. Our government preaches one set of standards, while gallivanting around the planet, destroying societies.

      Really, we have to do better than that.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    Glad to see you, Michael H. I was thinking of you during this argument. The problem is that civilians are an integral part of warmaking. In modern times, they work the factories that supply the armies. In ancient times, they worked the fields and had the babies that maintained the armies. Civilians will always be targets. I wish it were otherwise, but given a choice between attacking civilians and losing a war, the civilians always suffer. That’s why there have been laws of war. You can’t stamp out violence, but you can try to restrain it.

    The problem, Allison, is that the Nuremberg Laws are anything but clear. What is “military necessity”? Who decides what it is? The winner does. And if every American president has been a war criminal, does that mean that we only elect war criminals? Or is it more logical to conclude that this definition of war criminal is so impossible that no American leader can avoid it?

    If everyone is a war criminal, then no one is a war criminal. The laws of war become a joke. We’re going to have to accept that there must be an element of practicality in war, which means tolerating things that may be abhorrent because the alternative is total anarchy and that many more dead.

    • collapse expand

      Semantics and subjectivity frequently cloud our judgement, which is why it’s always important to err on the side of caution, and always make war and the bombing of civilians targets the very last resort.

      Or is it more logical to conclude that this definition of war criminal is so impossible that no American leader can avoid it?

      That’s a remarkable statement/question. You act as if the definition of a war criminal is “person that breathes air.” These are serious, grave offenses that cost enormous amounts of time, energy, and ammunition. They don’t just “happen.” War crimes are the results of deliberate planning, and the definition isn’t so loose as to encompass innocent individuals. These are the gravest of crimes committed by the guiltiest of persons, and they need to be held accountable for their actions.

      If everyone is a war criminal, then no one is a war criminal.

      What you’re proposing is nihilistic and would discredit our entire justice system. “If everyone is guilty of something, then no one is guilty.” We create laws that we have collectively decided are good for our societies. Those that don’t abide by those laws are guilty, whether we’re talking about an average street thug or the President of the United States.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    Again with the ambiguities! What does “last resort” mean? How do I know that a bombing was “last resort” or not? Who decides?

    War crimes do “just happen”, at least at under your definition. Civilians are hurt because of mechanical error, or negligence, or the air was foggy and the pilot really thought the school bus looked like a tank. These would seem to be war crimes, according to you. Unless, of course, you insist on proving intent, in which a lot of “war criminals” would claim it was collateral damage.

    But if I”m wrong and you’re right, Allison, ask yourself this: We’ve had various laws of war over the centuries. How many wars can you name where no innocents were injured, thus committing war crimes?

    • collapse expand

      I wasn’t aware we were writing the laws for humanity right now. :)

      “Last resort” means not launching preemptive war based on fabricated intelligence that a country has weapons of mass destruction, or not bombing a factory that makes aspirin, etc. Those that are in charge of America’s arsenal inherently face greater responsibility than the rest of us. There have to be great consequences for killing innocents and waging a war for personal gain, which is the whole concept behind creating “rules” for war in the first place. If you or I have a “bad day,” or we “make a mistake,” entire villages aren’t obliterated, but that shouldn’t mean we just let war criminals off the hook because they had a “bad day.”

      I’ve already said that atrocities are inevitable in war, which is why those that wage war should not be surprised when they find themselves accused of crimes against humanity after the fact. Waging war is not a defensive strategy, Michael, and so I hope you won’t become an apologist for any war criminals. If we — as a society — remove the penalties for crimes against humanity, what incentive do our government officials have to behave themselves? We already see how much fear men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have for our judicial system — zero.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  10. collapse expand

    Allison, agreed, humanity is in a lot of trouble. Always has been, probably always will be.

    You’re wrong about diplomacy–diplomatic language is filled with all sorts of hypocrisies and double standards.(See diplomat Biden’s hypocritical and double standard filled comments about Israel.) Diplomatic language is all about not saying what something is, or what’s actually happening, but saying things that advance our interests while making it seem like it’s in the interest of the other party as well.

    America is hated by the rest of the world for many reasons–hypocrisy is one of them, sure. But if the “rest of the world” looks too closely at their quite recent pasts, they’ll find their finger pointing is quite hypocritical, too. (The worst war of the 90’s, the Balkans, was fought in Europe…And Russia and China’s “hatred” is pretty weak gruel as well–Chechnya, Tibet, etc. )

    We’re all hypocrites, is all I’m saying, especially when you get to the level of nation states.

    • collapse expand

      So if we’re all hypocrites and that’s “always been the case and always will be the case,” then why create laws? Your solution seems to entail disbanding entirely as a society of rules and laws for the luxurious lives of maundering gangs that implement their own kind of street justice. :)

      The whole reason we humans came up with the law is to get as close to “objective” rules that apply egalitarian standards to everyone. So of course I know there are bad people everywhere, but that doesn’t mean we should suddenly abandon our own standards for our elected officials.

      Diplomats can negotiate using hypocrisy, but they can also negotiate using empathy, and by adopting the principle that any standard the US applies to another country, it must also adopt itself. Imagine that crazy idea.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  11. collapse expand

    Michael, I think you nail the problem with war crimes with your comment:

    “We’re going to have to accept that there must be an element of practicality in war, which means tolerating things that may be abhorrent because the alternative is total anarchy and that many more dead.”

    This would have been a good answer to McNamara’s question about how the immorality of war is defined by the victor.

  12. collapse expand

    Allison, I’m all for the rule of law. But for the rule of law to work, we need a governing body that can enforce the law. The most effective laws are those that states impose on their own populations, using their own methods of coercion. When we stray into the subject of international law–where I’d put war crimes–the problem has always been that there’s no effective or consistent way to enforce the laws because at the end of the day, “might is right.” Most of the schmucks who’ve gone on trial for war crimes, post-WWII, are not the leaders from powerful countries that have committed similar atrocities. So when McNamara made his firebomb comment, he was actually saying something quite extraordinary for a man in his position–that our actions in WWII could be considered criminal. He’s channeling his inner-Zinn!


    • collapse expand

      Most of the schmucks who’ve gone on trial for war crimes, post-WWII, are not the leaders from powerful countries that have committed similar atrocities

      A wonderful point! Which is why I believe we must start setting an example for the rest of the world and hold the Bush administration accountable for its war crimes (a phrase I shall continue to use :) )

      I agree that McNamara’s statement was extraordinary, and the man should be given an ounce of credit for acknowledging his own role in the Vietnam atrocities.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  13. collapse expand

    “And if every American president has been a war criminal, does that mean that we only elect war criminals? Or is it more logical to conclude that this definition of war criminal is so impossible that no American leader can avoid it?”

    It’s impossible to not invade other countries (Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq)? Overthrow leaders (Allende, Aristide, Arbenz)? Fund genocide (East Timor)? Train terrorists (Contras)? Bomb pharmaceutical factories (Sudan)? This is simply the best we can do?

    Anyways. I wanted to issue a correction that killing civilians isn’t a war crime. Targeting civilians is a war crime, or utter disregard for civilian life. So if a military base is bombed and civilians die, that isn’t really a war crime, it’s merely a tragedy… and perhaps necessary… depending on how much of a pacifist you are.

    On the other hand in cases of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki it was quite clear they were targeting civilians. Especially Dresden, a cultural city with no military, which was so bad even Churchill had to condemn it… kind of.

    On the plus side Henry Kissinger has limited travel options. How this hasn’t expanded to other U.S. officials is just odd. Was Henry Kissinger just that much more evil than the rest of them?

  14. collapse expand

    Humanity will be ok. We just need to make it through this pesky “nation” phase without accidentally blowing ourselves up. After all, the modern nation-state has only existed for a couple of hundred years. Eventually I think the way we organize society will change so much that war becomes a thing of the past. Give us another few centuries and I bet we’ll all be peace-loving cyborgs, networked together, ready to explore the galaxy. Like the Borg but more chill. And if we find any aliens, we won’t fight them, we’ll sell them cola. And then they’ll die because cola is poisonous to them. Ha, stupid aliens.

Log in for notification options
Comments RSS

Post Your Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment

Log in with your True/Slant account.

Previously logged in with Facebook?

Create an account to join True/Slant now.

Facebook users:
Create T/S account with Facebook

My T/S Activity Feed


    About Me

    I co-host Citizen Radio, the alternative political radio show. I am a contributing reporter to Huffington Post, Alternet.org, and The Nation.

    My essay "Youth Surviving Subprime" appears in The Nation's new book, Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover beside esssays by Ralph Nader, Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Naomi Klein, who I'm told are all important people.

    G. Gordon Liddy once told me my writing makes him want to vomit, which is the greatest compliment I've ever been paid ever.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 453
    Contributor Since: May 2009
    Location:New York, New York

    What I'm Up To

    • In The Nation’s New Book


      Check out my article “Youth Surviving Subprime” in The Nation’s new book beside essays by Ralph Nader, Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Naomi Klein.

    • Citizen Radio

      I co-host the biweekly political-comedy show, Citizen Radio. It’s like CNN, but with more swearing. Citizen Radio covers the stories that the mainstream, corporate media ignores. Past guests include: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, Ralph Nader, Tariq Ali,  Janeane Garofalo, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, and more…

      Go to wearecitizenradio.com and click on the iTunes logo to subscribe to our podcast for FREE. Also, join us on Facebook

    • +O
    • +O