Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The King of Dropping Bombs

The man who wrote the soundtrack to my life just passed away, and I don't mean Michael Jackson. I mean Robert Strange McNamara, who lived up to his middle name in waging a pointless, interminable war by means of statistics like body counts, bomb tonnage and troop levels. By late 1966 he realized the Vietnam War was futile but didn't share this knowledge with anyone until three decades later.

This was a justly troubled man.

Gulf of Tonkin. Operation Rolling Thunder. Draft cards. Search and destroy. Body bags. Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? The lyrics live on in the heads of my generation. And the beat goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My father worked for Robert McNamara. That was a bit of problem, for him and for me. My dad was assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development, and sonar and submarines were his areas of expertise, not counterinsurgency. And he left the Pentagon in 1966, when he recognized that the war was a futile waste. Still, this was a matter of some discomfort for a son in college in those days.

Maybe that was why I dropped out of college, much to his chagrin, and signed up for the Marines in late '65. No. I was crazy, genuinely. But only a little more so than the times.

Later my dad told me stories about McNamara, a man who was genial and polite socially, but rigid and number-bound at work.

He told me that tonnages of bombs dropped on Vietnam were so important to McNamara that the Air Force and the Navy competed to drop the most, and would loose their bombs anywhere just to make the quotas. He told me that his proudest accomplishment, the building of a small, nuclear-powered deep submersible research submarine never would have been accomplished if he hadn't slipped it into the budget when McNamara was away. "He would have spent the money on bombs instead," he told me.

He told me that Bernard Fall, the great journalist and historian of the French Indochina War, visited McNamara to tell him the Vietnam War could not be won by the United States. McNamara dismissed him, saying "Where are your numbers?"

These are numbers from the soundtrack to my life: Anywhere from 4.5 to 6 million Southeast Asians and 58,159 Americans.


Zoomie said...

Wow. Didn't know you were/are a Marine (Marines tell me there's no such thing as a former Marine). And I'm fascinated to hear of your Dad's work on a deep submersible - was that NR-1? I have an old friend who worked on that project. I have some of the same memories - we are always to be haunted by that terrible time, I guess.

cranky said...

Yep, NR-1. You know everything Navy. My mom was the sponsor of that boat, hitting it with a champagne bottle at New London.

Zoomie said...

Tangled lives and times, huh? Let's chat about that some day.