An Open Letter to Robert S. McNamara by Daniel N. White

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Sent to DS by the author.

Note: The following letter was sent January, 2009 but Daniel did not receive a response in return.

by Daniel N. White
Dandelion Salad
July 7, 2009
originally sent Jan. 2009

Dear Mr. McNamara,

My readings of late have prompted me to write you in the fine lost tradition of a public exchange of letters.  I wish to raise issues from your writings both as Secretary of Defense and as a private citizen in your recently published books that are of the utmost importance to our current wars in the Middle East, and to the health and proper functioning of American society and its political system.  These issues require being raised, and answered, in public, and therefore I turn to this old-fashioned means to do that.

Recently, Mr. McNamara, I decided to pick up Douglas Blaufarb’s seminal work, The Counter-Insurgency Era for a re-read, twenty years on.  Just by chance, I read the following section the very same day I read the recent (January 1 2009) Dexter Filkins NYT article detailing the staggering, unprecedented, vast, top-to-bottom corruption of the government we installed and prop up in Kabul, Afghanistan.  From Mr. Filkins’ account this Afghan government sets some new standard in corruption, graft, and inefficiency, one that makes our last wartime ally, South Vietnam’s, look positively like a model of uprightness and efficiency.  If you haven’t read Mr. Filkins’ article yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. Juxtapose that article with these words of yours, from a 1966 memo you wrote, on the problems of South Vietnam’s government, and how these problems were then dooming our war efforts, that Blaufarb quotes on pp236-8:

“The large-unit war…is largely irrelevant to pacification as long as we do not lose it.  By and large, people in rural areas believe that the GVN when it comes will not stay but that the VC will; that cooperation with the GVN will be punished by the VC,; that the GVN is really indifferent to the people’s welfare; that the low-level GVN are tools of the local rich; and that the GVN is ridden with corruption.

“Success in pacification depends on the interrelated functions of providing physical security, destroying the VC apparatus, motivating the people to cooperate, and establishing responsive local government.  An obviously necessary but not sufficient requirement for success of the RD (Revolutionary Development, a SVN paramilitary Peace Corps) cadre and police is vigorously conducted and adequately prolonged clearing operation by military troops who will ‘stay’ in the area, who behave themselves decently and who show respect for the people.

“This elemental requirement for pacification has been missing.  In almost no contested area designated for pacification in recent ears have ARVN forces actually ‘cleared and stayed’ to a point where cadre teams, if available, could have stayed overnight in hamlets and survived, let alone accomplish their mission.

“…The first essential reform is in the attitude of GVN officials.  They are generally apathetic, and there is corruption high and low.  Often appointments, promotions, and draft deferments must be bought; and kickbacks on salaries are common.  Cadres at the bottom can be no better than the system above them.

“The second needed reform is in the attitude and conduct of the ARVN.  The image of the government cannot improve unless and until the ARVN improves markedly.  They do not understand the importance (or respectability) of pacification nor the importance to pacification of proper disciplined conduct.

“Furthermore, it is my conviction that a part of the problem undoubtedly lies in bad management on the American as well as the GVN side.  Here split responsibility–or no responsibility–has resulted in too little pressure on the GVN to do it job and no really solid or realistic planning with respect to the whole effort.  We must deal with this management problem now and deal with it effectively.”

Mr. Filkins’ descriptions of Afghan government corruption are nothing new; I’d say anyone who is reasonably conversant with the situation there already has known all that for years now.  The failure and incompetence of our Afghan allies’ military and police forces is well documented by virtually every news report on them for the last seven years.  Same is true of Iraq.  Looking at your words from 1966, Mr. McNamara, if you were to substitute “Iraq”, “Afghanistan”, “Iraqi”, “Afghani”, “Taliban”, or “Insurgent” in the appropriate places your report would read as well, and be as timely, as it was in 1966.

I got to wondering, Mr. McNamara, why no one in this country is pointing out the obvious parallels between South Vietnamese government corruption and incompetence that, in your own contemporaneous words, was dooming, and in fact did doom, our war efforts there and how Iraqi and Afghan government corruption and incompetence must therefore be similarly dooming our war efforts in those two countries.  Most of all, I got to wondering why you weren’t pointing this fact out in public and trying to thereby get us disentangled sooner than later from these two lost military endeavors.  Perhaps your postwar writings would give me an answer.  I went off to them.

I ignored your first book, In Retrospect, in large part because a dozen years on I am still offended by your tour appearance on its behalf at the LBJ Library here in Austin. Prescreened audience of geriatric LBJ leftovers, with prescreened audience questions, one each asked by three servile panelists, no followup, and as quick a dash offstage as I’ve ever seen anyone do once the last question was answered, badly, with much table-thumping and a raised voice.  Nothing in the LBJ Library’s sorry-assed dog-and-pony show was designed to keep you honest, and you weren’t, and that suited you and the LBJ Library both.  No, I went off to your more recent book, Argument Without End, which with its roundtable discussions between you and your US government colleagues from the period, and your North Vietnamese government counterparts, had, I figured, the potential to make you answer the hard questions you deliberately dodged on your earlier book tour.  And, I suspect, dodged in that book as well.

Argument Without End has a good deal to offer history, I freely give it that.  Getting the notoriously secretive and reserved members of the Vietnamese government to talk as openly at the round-table discussions you had with them as they did was a great service to history.  Clio and her admirers all thank you for that.  I was much less pleased with your performance at the round-table discussions–the Vietnamese were too polite at your numerous assertions of US pure intentions in thought and deed, ones that should by now have been long put to rest.  Good God, it took you until 1996 to realize that there was no second attack in the Tonkin Gulf?  What is your excuse?  Your speeches and discussions to the Vietnamese, Mr. McNamara, call to mind an opening line from one of the Icelandic sagas:  “Snorri was the wisest man who had not the gift of foresight”.*   Much the same must be said of you.  And more, I suspect that you are as intelligent a person as who has ever existed who lacks both empathy and introspection.  That’s the main value to history of your own words in your own book, but most of us already suspected such about you.

I found of great interest, however, your book’s last chapter, “Learning from Tragedy”, which has six prescriptions from you to future American leaders on how to prevent another Vietnam War from happening.  I like them, even if they have more of a scent of poli-sci good government than I like.  They warrant repeating, and they are:

1)  Understand the Mindset of Your Adversary.
2)  Communicate with Your Adversary at a High Level.
3)  In Foreign Policy, Practice the Democratic Principals
We Preach.
4)  Apply U.S. Power–Economic, Political, or Military–Only
in a Context of Multilateral Decisionmaking.
5)  Acknowledge That Some Problems in International Affairs
Have No Solution, Particularly No Military Solution.
6)  Organize to Apply and Administer Military Power with
Intensity and Thoroughness.

Mr. McNamara, you forgot one important point, point number seven.  It reads:

7)  Persons who are aware of the Above Points Have An Obligation to Speak Up.

When you get right down to it, Point Number 7 is the most important of them all, isn’t it, Mr. McNamara?

Mr. McNamara, the BushII administration, with the assent of our supine Congress, has plainly and obviously trampled all over the first six points of your policy prescription to prevent a future war disaster.  Why then haven’t you spoken up?  Why haven’t any of your surviving Kennedy/Johnson colleagues spoken up?  Our present sordid wars have cost us more dollars than Vietnam did, and, if you count the Afghan dead from the Russian war (which, seeing as we Brer-Rabbited the Russkis into that war, those deaths can reasonably be laid on our country’s doorstep) and the Iraqi dead from the post Iraq War I sanctions (which unavoidably are on our doorstep) have cost at least as many human lives as our Vietnam war did.  These wars are seven years old now**, and are a disaster beyond reckoning, to this country, and its future prospects, and to those poor unfortunates afoul the path of our terrible war machine and seven years into them you still haven’t spoken up.  God-Damn You, why not?  Why the hell haven’t you said word one on these wretched wars?  Why are you staying silent in the face of this disaster, one that stinks to high heaven of the same ignorance and arrogance and closet-imperialism that your Vietnam War did.  Answer me, and every right-thinking American, that.  Now.

Sincerely Yours,

Daniel N. White

*As you might imagine, things did not turn out well for Snorri in this saga.

** Russian invasion dates from 1980, although there is a decent argument to be made that the deliberate and willful US entanglement of Afghanistan and the USSR begins under Nixon, with CIA agent-provocateur actions starting in 1973.  The Afghan war is then at least 28 years old now.  It will certainly see another two birthdays, which would then make it a longer war than Vietnam’s wars against France and the US, which war is arguably the longest in recent times.


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Vietnam War architect McNamara dies

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Robert S. McNamara by Daniel N. White

  1. Pingback: Antiwar Radio: Daniel Ellsberg and Gareth Porter on Tonkin Gulf « Dandelion Salad

    • Read your letter to McNamara and critque of his book,Aurgument Without End. Good points were made on the US government supporting a corrupted and insurgent installed leadership but we might have asked about the role of the Military Industrial Complex. Wars as we know enriched corporate barrons and without declaring some conspiracy theory I would venture to guess that he (McNamara) viewed himself as a narcistic over self -confident intellectual who never experienced a failure in his life. -Robert

  2. Pingback: McNamara Dies at 93: A Look at His Legacy With Howard Zinn, Marilyn Young & Jonathan Schell « Dandelion Salad

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