McNamara's book closes a chapter in a bitter history

April 16, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

COLLEGE PARK -- From the campus chapel high on a hill overlooking U.S. 1, you can gaze tenderly down to the spot between the University of Maryland Book Store and the place that used to be Albrecht's Pharmacy where the tear gas wafted through the balmy spring air and stopped all oxygen from entering my lungs.

It was my pathetic little piece of the war that was Robert McNamara's and Robert Dornan's and, for that matter, Bill tTC Clinton's. U.S. 1 was spilling over that afternoon. There were college kids furiously protesting the fighting in Vietnam, and College Park residents furiously protesting the kids, and uniformed State Police and National Guard troops shooting their tear gas all around.

The fighting was never going to end. In Washington in that era, McNamara was still proclaiming the war could be won and ordering up more bodies. In my neighborhood, the news had arrived that a buddy from down the block would be coming home in a casket. The number of American deaths would reach 58,000 before the war would end, only now, we learn from this Robert Dornan who wishes to be president, the fighting has still not ended.

Dornan takes his pleasure in calling Bill Clinton a traitor and a "disgraced draft dodger" for avoiding a war he found immoral, and he dedicates his brand new run for the White House to "those friends who disappeared into the mists of Southeast Asia." He says Clinton "gave aid and comfort to the enemy" by participating in anti-war demonstrations a quarter-century ago.

Only now, all these years later, we're still wondering who the real enemy was: the Vietnamese who had a war among themselves and found American might intruding upon it; or those like Robert McNamara, ordering up the bodies all those years ago, assuring us the war could be won, equating the effort with American greatness and patriotic duty, and tearing the country apart in the process.

In a new book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," we now have McNamara declaring that the United States should have withdrawn from Vietnam in late 1963 (when only 78 Americans had been killed in Vietnam), that the war was unwinnable, and that "We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

Now he tells us. Now he says the protesters weren't bums, which is what Richard Nixon called them, and now he says we were all lied to by Washington, and now he says that those who protested the war weren't traitors or disgraces to the country.

"I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand," McNamara writes. "It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force -- especially when wielded by an outside power -- cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself."

While this is clear to many, it is apparently not clear to Rep. Robert Dornan, who wishes to resurrect some of the bombast and bitterness of that time. Partly, such a thing surely comes from Dornan's heart: dear friends, heeding Washington's urgings, went to their death in Vietnam. Partly, though, the outrageous language behooves him politically. And certainly, it brings all of us who remember the war back to a place we've longed to leave behind.

On this University of Maryland campus, Vietnam is remembered only in history classrooms. Most of these kids weren't yet born when the war ended two decades ago. They hear of Hanoi or the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the words have no more immediacy than Hiroshima or the blitzkrieg. They think of U.S. 1 at the edge of campus, and they can't imagine tear gas in the air, and troops everywhere, and the middle-aged residents of this college town screaming at the young people to love their country or leave it.

That was the fatal equation back then: In order to show your love for your country, you had to sign up for the possibility of dying for it. Many never understood such thinking, and still don't. The protesters set fire to the flag, and the parents of working-class kids draped it over the coffins of their sons, and still the war went on.

Robert McNamara's book is an ugly thing, in its way. It arrives 30 years too late to bring back the dead. It cannot erase the ugliness of those confrontations at all the places like Route 1, with the college kids desperate for the war to end before their draft numbers turned up, and the middle-aged town people who remembered World War II and thus imagined all wars patriotic efforts. And everyone in the streets, Americans all, with their fangs bared to each other.

But McNamara's book has its beauty, too, and its usefulness: Yes, says the architect of that war, we were wrong. Yes, the government lied to its own people. Yes, you could be a patriot and still find that war immoral. If Robert McNamara can say this, can't Robert Dornan? And can't we all put the bitterness to rest?

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