Lesson of McNamara: Fear official arrogance

April 20, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

There are 58,132 names inscribed on the polished black granite wall at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington.

Each name is that of an American killed in the Vietnam War. The names are listed chronologically, by the order in which they fell.

Dale R. Buis, an Army major from Pender, Neb., tops this list. Major Buis was killed on July 8, 1959. He was 37 years old.

Richard Vande Geer, a 27-year-old Air Force second lieutenant from Columbus, Ohio, is the last name inscribed there. He was killed May 15, 1975.

It makes a powerful difference when the dead have names.

Yesterday, hundreds of people walked in a slow, solemn procession from one end of the memorial to the other, staring at the inscriptions, stopping from time to time to caress and perhaps photograph the name of a loved one.

It was a hot, hazy day in our nation's capital. Visitors wore shorts and T-shirts, their eyes shaded by sunglasses. Overhead, an occasional jet roared by, angling into National Airport on the other side of the Potomac River.

A child asked, "Why are there so many names, Mommy?"

"Because a lot of people died," answered her mother.

"All these people died?"

"Yes, honey."

The memorial is surrounded by broad green lawns and trees with soft, white blossoms. At the base of the wall, people have placed pTC flowers and photographs and handwritten notes. To the east, through the trees, you can see the Washington Monument. A few yards to the west sits the marble splendor of the Lincoln Memorial.

Walking through this extraordinary monument to the courage and sacrifices of those who fought in Vietnam helped me understand the awful agony of the soul that led Robert S. McNamara to publicly apologize for his role in getting the United States mired in Southeast Asia. Mr. McNamara was secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during much of the war. Indeed, the war was once tagged "McNamara's War."

"I want to put Vietnam in context," writes Mr. McNamara in his newly published memoirs, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam."

"We were wrong, terribly wrong," he writes. "We owe it to future generations to explain why."

Mr. McNamara chronicles the miscalculations, errors in judgment and official deceptions that prolonged the fighting for 12 years beyond the point in 1963 when he says the nation's leaders should have realized the war could not be won.

"People are human; they are fallible. I concede with painful candor and a heavy heart that the adage applies to me and to my generation of American leadership regarding Vietnam," he says in his book.

In one sense, Mr. McNamara's confession doesn't mean a whole lot today. It is far more important for us to remember the fallen, to honor their sacrifice, to help the survivors rebuild their lives.

On the other hand, Mr. McNamara is right when he says that he owes it to future generations to explain how and why America's leaders erred. It is hoped that we will not make the same mistakes again.

Mr. McNamara's memoirs suggest that with regard to Vietnam, some members of our government no longer considered themselves accountable to the American people. They fed the public misinformation. They ignored dissenting voices. They attempted to crush opposition.

And this occurred years before the excesses uncovered during the Watergate and Iran/contra scandals. Perhaps the arrogance that apparently prevailed during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations spilled over into the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Or perhaps we have yet to learn from the past. Have we accepted yet that those who protested the apparent arrogance and dishonesty of our leaders were as courageous in their own way as those who fought? How can we hold our leaders accountable without seeming to be unpatriotic or cynical?

Now, at last, one of those arrogant men has found the grace to admit he was wrong. Maybe we can learn from his admission.

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