Paul Hendrickson's pursuit of the deepest moral consequences of the Vietnam War

September 22, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The nice people at the Library of Congress tell me that 928 books about the Vietnam War have been published since 1967. Thirty-five are labeled fiction and 893 nonfiction, though this ensures nothing about their truthfulness.

Vietnam? Again? More?

America lost 50,022 lives in combat, and the Vietnamese North and South more than 1 million. Two million more civilians died. The war cost about U.S. taxpayers some $200 billion. The emotional toll is incalculable.

Paul Hendrickson explores the numbers: "More than 43 million Americans lost someone in Vietnam; more than 100,000 veterans have died prematurely since the war - which is not quite twice the number of names on the wall. What makes Vietnam so terrible a tragedy and so fine a myth is its impenetrability. It is a puzzle without pieces, a riddle without rhyme."

That is from the 929th book on Vietnam, Page 124: Hendrickson's "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War" (Knopf. 427 pages. $27.50).

For material matters, there are several Vietnam books more important than this, even among the mere couple of dozen I have read in the course of writing about 1 million words myself in newspaper articles, columns and editorials.

Why so many books, why the endless words? Very simply, because of the impenetrability. The costs of the Vietnam war are far greater than any figures, however awful, can convey.

Wounded faith

The most awful cost was the wound to American faith, to American trust in a national decency, to the belief that American democracy in its genius usually does good and, when that fails, rights itself honestly, however agonizingly.

For tragic numbers of Americans, that blessed innocence died in Vietnam. No single person was more responsible than Robert Strange McNamara.

Hendrickson's book took 12 years to complete. It is built around intense examination of McNamara's life interplaying intricately with the lives of five others.

They are:

* a marginally mad artist who tried to murder McNamara long after he left the Pentagon;

* a Marine who became a national icon of sorts in 1965 through a Life photo essay on combat;

* a military nurse;

* a Vietnamese survivor who fled to the United States, surrogate for all who were swept up;

* Norman R. Morrison, a Quaker who killed himself with fire at the Pentagon on Nov. 2, 1965.

Why McNamara? Lyndon Johnson, of course, was commander in chief, ultimately accountable. Subsequently Richard Nixon, pressed hard by Henry Kissinger, continued the war, extended, expanded it.

But McNamara spent seven years and 39 days as secretary of defense, from immediately after John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration until Feb. 29, 1968. In the spring and early summer of 1965, when America's commitment to combat in Vietnam was being inexorably set, it was McNamara who was the most forceful proponent for escalation. "Of all the President's steadfast civilian policy makers," Hendrickson writes, "none was pushing or urging or jamming to go harder toward the big war or arguing his case in closed-door meetings more forcefully or brilliantly than the secretary of defense."

Hendrickson traces McNamara's doubts, his secret disputes with Johnson, his replacement at defense. And then his silence.

Finally, for Hendrickson, this is McNamara's crime: "First that the man in charge of America's military force didn't quit when he no longer held out honest military belief; and second, that he didn't speak out afterward, while the war was still being raged ... when his voice and decision to tell the truth might have changed history and saved thousands from their graves or wounds."

Throughout, the book builds on meticulous reporting. The devil is in the details. Hendrickson understands details. He conserves them, he weaves them. Deftly, delicately, decisively he daubs them, as zinc-white on a somber painting.

Deadly chimera

Tiny flicks from McNamara's childhood - overcompensating, intense, always successful -as a teen-ager, at Berkeley, at Harvard Business School. All along, there are little lies. Many might be called exaggerations, excesses of enthusiasm. Little self-flattering details. His mother notoriously did the same - and was an unrelenting force, driving her son beyond excellence, toward that most deadly of all chimera, perfection.

I defy anyone with a heart and a mind to read this book and not weep - often. Not shout with anger. Not pound fists in fury on innocent inert objects.

That done, every sentient reader will be driven to consider principles that should guide all creatures privileged to think of themselves as moral beings. At the very top:

Qui tacet consentire:

He who is silent gives consent.

Write that 100 times. Now. Before you next go to sleep.

To this day McNamara - most expressly in his own book "In Retrospect" (Times Books. 414 pages. $27.50) and in endless interviews and panels in the course of peddling it - has never addressed, head-on, the stark truth of his responsibility. He writes. He talks. Yet he dodges.

Perhaps he just doesn't understand. Perhaps his insensitivity, cynicism or his narcissism have blinded him to such concerns. I don't know.

Paul Hendrickson, to his immense credit, doesn't pretend to know. But his book makes more brilliantly and movingly clear than any other the most central lesson of the Vietnam War:

Qui tacet consentire.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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