Monday, July 06, 2009


Probably you saw or read that Robert Strange McNamara died today...and yes his middle name was Strange. His passing is sad in a historical way, and for his family, but most of us of the Vietnam era who served in the military have fairly strong feelings about the man who directed and shaped the war.

Despite President Kennedy's and Johnson's philosophical leadership, McNamara, as Secretary of Defense, was the chief architect of how the war was fought. And for a good deal of the war it was poorly served by his leadership. It was the accountant and statistician McNamara who after the battles in the Ia Drang Valley where my friends fought, came up with the concept of the "body count" as a measure of how we were doing. After the battle at LZ Xray McNamara decided that if we could keep on killing the enemy in much greater numbers than they were killing our soldiers, the North Vietnamese could not sustain the war. In the end the North Vietnamese lost numbers some put close to three million soldiers and civilians, the U.S. lost close to 59,000 troops....and still we were defeated. While being interviewing for the book We Were Soldiers Once and Young, General Giap, the military commander of North Vietnamese forces, told General Hal Moore that North Vietnam would have been willing to endure three times the casualties that they did and would have fought for 20 years more if it meant winning the war.

Perhaps our disdain for McNamara stems from his lofty Ivy League "I'm obviously right, so let's stick to the business plan" attitude, which reduced our brother soldiers to statistical highlights making it seem OK to lose 100 Americans if only they killed 500 Viet Cong as they were dying. It was obvious to the troops dying in the mud that he certainly wasn't right about much nor had the willingness to change strategies or listen to the commanders in the field. And certainly his mea culpa book in 1995, admitting that early in the war he knew he was wrong but did nothing to change the outcome, has left his place in history with Vietnam Vets on the dung heap.

Added as it appeared, my friend Joe Galloway's comments on McNamara