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Robert McNamara, 1916-2009 -- and America's tragic memory loss

Robert McNamara died today at age 93. As Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and more notably Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s, it was McNamara who oversaw America's tragic military buildup in Vietnam. That made McNamara -- right up until today's news -- a vivid anti-icon to those Baby Boomers who opposed the war -- and I think you can make the case that his death is that of the most historical significance of the slew of recent "celebrity" passings, no matter how many millions of people are gathering outside the Staples Center to remember the Gloved One.

Bob McNamara was not a great man. He was a man with great intelligence that didn't prevent him from executing a plan that led to the unnecessary slaughter -- for reasons that remain hard to fully comprehend -- of tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese. He spent next four decades trying to come to terms with the banality of evil, with the horror of what he and those around him had done, but even his unusually candid apologies never seemed to go far enough:

The secretary of defense was a key figure in decisions to escalate the war between 1961 and 1965, and he readily concedes that the assumptions upon which he and his colleagues acted were badly flawed. They approached Vietnam, he recalls, with "sparse knowledge, scant experience and simplistic assumptions." Victims of their own "innocence and confidence," they foolishly viewed communism as monolithic, knew nothing about Indochina, and were "simple?minded" regarding the historical relationship between China and Vietnam. They badly misjudged Ho Chi Minh's nationalism and consistently overestimated South Vietnam's ability to survive. Regarding the key decisions of 1965, he admits he should have anticipated that bombing North Vietnam would lead to requests for ground troops. He concedes there should have been a public debate on the July 1965 decision for war. Over and over he acknowledges that he should have examined the unexamined assumptions, asked the unasked questions, and explored the readily dismissed alternatives.

The life of Robert McNamara was a personal tragedy, but it was also an American tragedy, our tragedy -- because even after McNamara spelled out everything that went so horribly wrong in Vietnam, he lived long enough to see a new generation of the self-appointed "best and brightest" in Washington pay absolutely no mind to the lessons of our recent past.

In Iraq, as in Vietnam, our policy-makers knew nothing or cared little about the long history and convoluted ethnic and religious politics of Mesopotamia's Fertile Crescent. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there was no plan for the proper military follow-up to a period of "shock and awe" bombing. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we totally misjudged the "nationalism" of the people who lived there and how they would react to a long American occupation. And perhaps most importantly, In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there was no real "public debate" as we marched headlong and foolishly into the 2003 -- with way too many "unexamined assumptions," "unasked questions," and "readily dismissed alternatives."

I actually spoke, very briefly, on the phone with McNamara in early 2003 in an effort to interview him for the Daily News. Like a few other journalists in that critical hour, I was hoping some of his tragically acquired wisdom might infuse the tepid pre-war discussions, and like all other reporters in those pre-war months, he told me he was holding off on commenting (as noted in the link above, he had a lot to say in 2006 when it was too late). That was a damned shame -- even though I can't imagine it would have tipped the rigged scales.

Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, it's hard not to imagine there wasn't some higher purpose to McNamara's longevity. You could argue that it was a cosmic punishment, of sorts, to live so many years with the searing memories of so many who died so horrifically because of his misguided decisions from the comforts of his big desk at the Pentagon. Or you argue that he was still here in the early 2000s as a kind of a warped prophet, a flesh-and-blood monument to the folly of militarism. If that is true, then the fact that America refused to pay any attention is Robert McNamara's greatest tragedy of all.