For most people who labor in the imperial capital, chance meetings with notables are a side benefit of the job. Not for me. Thus my surprise just before noon on a recent Saturday to come upon one of the most notable, if notorious, Washingtonians of them all: Robert Strange McNamara. He was lunching alone at a table for two in the Old Ebbitt Grill, devouring a fulsomely garnished hamburger, washing it down with a mug of coffee. He is an old man now, just turned eighty-one, his skin mottled and almost translucent. Age has blurred and softened his features. For all that, he remains instantly recognizable: the hair thinner but still slicked back, the eyes unmistakable-quick, alert, penetrating-framed by the trademark rimless spectacles. For those of us who served in Vietnam, McNamara remains a never-to-be forgotten figure. He was, as David Halberstam would write, “the can-do man in the can-do society, in the can-do era.” The McNamara who presided over the Pentagon as secretary of defense was also smarter than the rest of us: precise, analytical, and self-assured. As a result, amidst the various knaves and bunglers who penetrated the war, he alone among officials at the very top saw disaster coming. Thus, by his own admission, McNamara had concluded by late 1965-that is, within six months of American combat troops first landing in Vietnam-that the war was unwinnable. To persist was to plunge into an ever more costly stalemate. Armed with that conclusion, he withheld it. Steadfastly loyal to his president, he betrayed everyone else. He became a Judas goat, leading the unwary toward the slaughterhouse, resolutely shipping the lumpen soldaten to Southeast Asia. There, in the tall grass and the jungle, many would fall and the rest would return home to endure the sullen contempt of their fellow citizens, all to no purpose. By 1968, with the war having brought the nation to the brink of nervous collapse, McNamara simply moved on. He became president of the World Bank, devoted himself to nuclear disarmament and other worthy causes, and finally, after decades of silence, published a “mistakes were made” memoir. Around Georgetown or Kalorama, no doubt, he remains “Bob.” One imagines that he still attends smart Washington dinner parties. From time to time, he graces some conference convened to consider weighty matters. As self-anointed minister of national reconciliation, he parlays with former adversaries in Russia, Cuba, and Vietnam, as if to consign all the nastiness of the cold war to some vast misunderstanding now happily put to rest. Outside of elite circles, meanwhile, he ranks among the most reviled living Americans. In our dizzily multicultural society, detesting Robert McNamara may be one of the few surviving remnants of a common civic culture, uniting citizens regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Thus to stumble onto Robert McNamara two blocks from the White House feasting on a sandwich seemed to call for some action. But what? Angry denunciation? An insult discreetly uttered while passing his table? An offer to trade war stories? I did not know. Flustered, I simply walked out. That night I called on an old friend, another veteran of Mr. McNamara’s war. It was a painful visit. Just two years earlier, my friend’s only son-himself a young soldier of unusual promise-had been killed in a training accident at Fort Hood. Night maneuvers, an unseen ditch, a moment of confusion inside a dark and crowded turret, and an Abrams tank suddenly lay upside down in a shallow pool of water. The son’s death had shattered the family. In this household, to use the currently fashionable term, there had been no “closure.” Nor was there ever likely to be. My friend and his wife had rejected altogether any thought of putting their son’s death behind them, of “getting on” with their lives-at least so it seemed to me. Instead, they had chosen prolonged mourning. They would not even for an instant let go of his memory. Driving back toward Washington that night I thought about my friend’s family and again about my unsettling encounter with Robert McNamara. In the relaxed, prosperous summer of 1997, bitter memories about a distant war have become unseemly. After all, the market is up, crime and unemployment are down, and our fourth graders are doing us proud in math and science. The world is (more or less) at peace. In Hanoi, an American ambassador has been warmly received; lucrative trade deals will follow. At home, the government busies itself with initiatives to perfect Bill Clinton’s America: apologizing for slavery, saving children from the curse of tobacco, and eliminating the scourge of defective government-mandated automobile air bags. In Bill Clinton’s America, it may be bad form and it is no doubt ahistorical to persist in holding McNamara accountable for all of the dishonesty, hubris, and waste that was the Vietnam War. Others were no less to blame. Yet singling out McNamara for peculiar responsibility serves a crucially important function. Once the Judas goat who misled the innocent, McNamara has since become America’s scapegoat. It is his peculiar role to shoulder the burden of guilt for Vietnam. Yet unlike the scapegoat described in Leviticus, we have not cast him into the desert in order to expiate sin. Rather we allow him to roam freely among us, the awareness of his presence and his occasionally fleeting appearances rekindling outrage. For those dedicated to the proposition that with Vietnam there should be no closure-no coming to terms, no letting bygones be bygones, no forgetting the bright hopes and dreams so abominably snuffed out-McNamara remains an irreplaceable sustaining force. For that, at least, I might have thanked him.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: View Contents

Andrew Bacevich is chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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