On not forgiving Robert S. McNamara


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...

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About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East:  A Military History (April 2016).