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06 July 2009


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Thank you for the heartfelt firsthand perspective. As a candidate wiz-kid from the post-Vietnam era (if I can be so immodest), I am only glad that I both lacked the natural math skills and then had the instinct to walk away because it was, to be frank, intellectually seductive...

In fact, I just sold my copy of Mary Kaldor's The Baroque Arsenal that along with James Fallow's National Defense and personal experiences were salutary influences on me in the late 70's and early 80's...

All I can wonder now is whether the armies of sociologists and anthropologists are not subverting a constructive (re)consideration of COIN in the same way that the pure technocrats and military-industrialists have consistently tried to remove the human-factors from the tactical and strategic analysis of warfighting.

PS: I really started this comment with the simple observation that I had just learned that McNamara's middle name was "Strange"...

... and it's too ironic to comment further.

John Minnerath

I feel much the same as you do.
I can never forgive him for what he did.


Personal note: Really beautiful writing, Colonel.

Mike Martin, Yorktown, VA

I remember watching parts of the "Fog of War" documentary a few years ago and wondering if it wasn't partially a mea culpa, as though a light finally came on in his later life.

Agree w/ you, may the Good Lord have mercy on him.

David Habakkuk

A good man seduced by mathematics?


I don't.

He and his systems analysis and operations research "children" worked it all out on blackboards and primitive mainframe computers. If there were enough "inputs," then by a date certain, the "output" would be North Vietnamese surrender.
Sigh. I remember.

Any time you hear something like this, you are most certainly listening to a charlatan.

And it doesn't make a bloody bit of difference whether they are using antique IBM 360s or the biggest baddest massively parallel supercomputer available today or some quantum computer 50 years down the road.

There is a large class of problems whose outcome cannot be predicted by anything you can build. Even if you have precise governing equations in hand. And that inability, itself, can be mathematically demonstrated.

That's just the very uppermost highly visible tip of the vast sunken iceberg that this sort of confidence game founders on.


Nice post.

I'm too young to have the personal feelings forged in Vietnam expressed here, but I second the comment on "Fog of War". I hope you've seen it.

I saw Macnamara on the Orange Line one day in the early 2000s, late in his eighties, NYT under his arm, quite self-contained and obviously on his way to a few hours in a personal office.

It was deep, sleepy summer in DC, mid-day, when the metro was filled with more tourists than locals. I remember being amazed at the scene, a car full of families on their self-improving, civic duty weeks in dc, on their way to the monuments and buildings for a taste of physical evidence of American history, and totally unaware of the old man with the hat, the coat, and the newspaper who personally represented more of the American Century, for better and for worse, in their midst.


McNamara was a character worthy of Shakespeare. He caused enormous pain, and it caused him enormous remorse, which he openly acknowledged. His public confession made virtually unique among the countless Washington power mongers, who never have the decency admit to their crimes. Or perhaps their psyches are so warped that they are oblivious to their crimes. Among these, Rumsfeld and Cheney head the pack. Even worse is John Kerry, who learned the lessons of Vietnam and then promptly forgot them when it became politically convenient to do so.

As a nation we could do worse than eulogize McNamara in the context of lessons learned--that great power invites great abuse and can lead to great, often untold suffering. Above all, the lessons of McNamara's life should be required reading for all Washington politicians and high government officials, particularly those involved in setting defense and foreign policy.

Dave of Maryland

I was glad he lived long enough to realize what he had done, somehow to come to terms with it & die peaceably. I wish every fool, tyrant, petty dictator & most especially George W & Dick long lives, and for precisely that reason. Time is the greatest solvent of all.



Furthermore, did his whiz kids input the number of draftable northern bodies and a guesstimate on reverse polarity Chieu Hoi's (from ranks of ARVN/Ruff-Puff), still to be thrown at the Allies?
Not to mention, how long they could keep doing so?

Did they also plug in a timeline when LBJ would tire of Gen. Westhisface's rosy, lighted tunnel prognostications, and shut the door on further US troop commitments?

GINGO...I bet our audience here could come up with a host of other factoids that were not input, notwithstanding the Historical and cultural differences.

Hey, MJ: Who counted the bodies?

Patrick Lang


"Chieu Hois from ranks of ARVN/Ruffpuff?" What are you talking about?
i was there.
don't BS me. pl


I went back and re-read your "General Jones Delivers the Mail" entry because you wrote they didn't want a Vietnam/Iraq mess.
I don't think McNamara deserves all the blame for Vietnam. Did Nixon get us out any sooner? Johnson knew we wouldn't win, whatever win means. Surely Nixon knew also.


I was angry at Secretary McNamara for a long time. Forgiveness isn't mine to bestow. I eventually stopped caring about him because there were others who deserved my attention more: a few of the people he helped place in harm's way.

Besides, if blame still needs to be accorded for that cesspool of a war, there's plenty to go around beyond Body Count Bob.


An eloquent elegy, Colonel.

And I have to second David H's interpretation of a man "seduced by mathematics".

In that sense, McNamara was perhaps the first of many, including the current incarnation of Wall Street mathematics mavens.

Angry Aggie

Unlike Rumsfeld, McNamara at least realized and admitted his terrible mistake. In "The Fog of War", I found McNamara equally thoughtful and tragic.

Too bad our era's Best and Brightest didn't learn from him. Instead, today's dangerous Whiz Kids are not economists but anthropologists.

Let's also not forget the buck stops with LBJ who pushed the war and Nixon for prolonging it.

Patrick Lang


I do not accept the notion that all America's wars are ignoble.

Your insinuation that the HTS program is ignoble is not one I would accept any more than I would accept the notion that my family's long service in the US Army is ignoble. pl


My comments are not about what is ignoble but rather what is strategically sound. Don't confuse the two issues.

None of America's wars are ignoble. Vietnam and this current war in Iraq, however, were strategic mistakes.

Similarly, HTS is not ignoble but futile and strategically flawed.

My comments are not about honor but about strategy, which, after all, is something McNamara failed to grasp.

Of course, your service (and my family's service) is noble. It's still okay in this country to be critical of strategic decisions of our political leaders without challenging the nobility of our military's service.


I'm not exactly sure how, but he eventually took on contrition quite willingly.
Would the Vietnamese say "Kam an Ung" or "He beaucoup dinky dao"? (My apologies if I didn't get that right. No posing. I was a lightweight in country)


The shades of many who predeceased Secretary McNamara have undoubtedly been waiting a long while for this moment.


You hope God forgives McNamara?
Do you likewise hope he forgives everyone else, yourself included?

Did McNamara personally dream up and advocate for the Vietnam War? It's so convenient, and so typically American, to find something/someone to hang all our collective guilt and failings upon.

So it seems that McNamara is the fall guy, the national whipping boy.

America collectively owns the Vietnam War.


Unlike McNamara Generial Giap is willing to criticize his country's political leaders:

Patrick Lang


I own my piece of the war and am proud of it.


Serving soldiers do not have the privilege of determining what is strategically sound. Your comment is irrelevent. The Secretary of Defense has responsibility towards all those for whom he exercises constitutional judgments. pl

frank durkee

As a metaphor I thought then and still do that the criteria of evaluation for the foe should have been Valley forge. If so we would have seen more clearly and acted more astutely. I am clear that the kids i buried from that war are still mourned by me.


Whenever I read about the passing of someone like McNamara I have a line from The Gulag Archipelago go through my mind. For what it's worth then:

I have no intention of forgiving everyone. While the idol towers over us on his commanding emminance, his brow creased imperiously, smug and insensate, mutilating our lives- just let me have the heaviest stone! Or let a dozen of us sieze a battering ram and knock him off his perch.

But once he is overthrown, once the first furrow of self-awareness runs over his face as he crashes to the ground-lay down your stones!

He is returning to humanity unaided.
Do not deny him his God given way.

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