Culture and politics forum
Robert McNamara dead at age 93
Robert McNamara, considered by many as the primary architect behind the Vietnam war died yesterday at age 93.
The Washington Post has a fascinating five-page obituary on him -- it is well worth a read.
McNamara "changed his mind" well after the events of both World War Two and Vietnam -- best captured in the film The Fog of War -- a fascinating documentary on the man and has actions.
In one of his best known quotes in the film, he says (talking of the firebombing of Tokyo):
"In a single night we burned to death 100,000 civilians - men, women, and children — in Tokyo. I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it."
He later recounts how LeMay admitted, "'If we lost the war, we'd all be prosecuted as war criminals.' He - and I - were behaving as war criminals . What makes it immoral if you lose but not if you win?"
You can read far more about The Fog of War here and if you haven't seen it, I heartedly recommend it - absolutely fascinating.
No real question here, but rather thought it was worth a post -- the passing of a man whose actions directly saw to it hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Simultaneously, a part of the world that we all know today as being fascinating and magical was forever changed.
So what is it that makes it immoral if you lose but not if you win?
#1 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 06:56
The issue of definitions of war crimes is a complex one. Given the extreme nature of the Imperial Japanese State during WW II I don't see as trying to fight that war in a humane way was going to yield results. The Japanese reaped what they sowed. In any event the Japanese would not have tried them as war criminals. They would have skipped that part of the process and gone straight to execution. Their treatment of peoples in places they occupied was beyond barbaric.
As for southeast Asia, again a complex issue. Plenty of blame to go around between the US, the French, The Dong and the South Vietnamese (did I mention the Chinese or the Soviets?).
McNamara was dealing with a difficult and complex situation but history will not be kind to him or appreciate the issues at stake. It will also forget his role in preventing wars in other places.
#2 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 14:35
Being a now ex-academic with a then position in political economy, and earlier an involvement in the Vietnam conflict, I did some reading on McNamara.
I also know that what is written is either criticism, or whitewashing. Rarely is
Nevertheless, my 'reading' of McNamara was that he was first, a complex soul, second, militaristic, and third, had very simplistic and polarised views on right/wrong.
Because of the third attribute, when coupled to the second, I considered he was not averse to using any means to justify an end. And, sometimes, such means can never be used to justify an end.
Elsewhere, I've made comments on US politics (you won't find them, though, they were deleted - like Thai royalty, one can't overtly criticise the almighty US). Anyway, one of the attributes about the US that is not nice is that with the advent of electronic media, politics now drives perceptions of popularism.
But, it was not always so. Back in the 1960's & 70's, government decision-making was driven largely by leadership agenda. But, just because one department had an agenda, that didn't mean the nation held the same agenda. Rather, that administrative success in influencing national leadership depended on bully-boy power, coercion, etc. But, the most important criterion in agenda setting was whether one could 'deliver' what a leader wanted.
As an example, go see Allison's text "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis".
My reading of McNamara was that he not only proposed to deliver, but he took no prisoners in his bid to actually deliver.
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Just because the Imperial Japanese Army were inhumane does not in itself justify an inhumane response.
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So what is it that makes it immoral if you lose but not if you win?
I have the view that if you win sufficiently well and thus have POWER, you make the other out to be an immoral (inhumane) tyrant to avert any glaze towards one's own (immoral or inhumane) actions.
#3 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 15:09
"Just because the Imperial Japanese Army were inhumane does not in itself justify an inhumane response."
It does to me. Particularly when any other kind of response was going to mean a lot more dead allied troops. The Japense started the war, their conduct in the war was abhorent, and to end the war was going to cost and cost big in American and other allied lives. So I have no problem whatsoever with how the US conducted the war against either Germany or Japan.
You've been in combat before Bruce. Surely you must understand that at a certain point your enemies behavior can cause you to react in ways you would not normally. This happened to me when I was in Somalia and happened to the US military when confronted with Japanese barbarism.
#4 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 17:36
I cannot agree.
I will readily admit that military hyperbole and propaganda incites young soldiers to do the bidding of armchair politicians hellbent of powermongering, and often this results in inhumane actions. And, as long as that inhumanity was undertaken by the winning side it was considered OK while if it was done by the enemy it was butchery.
Ah, what wonderful ways we can twist ideas to suit our preferences!
I was at Hiroshima a little over a year ago. The Japanese had done what we call a 'freedom of information' search on declassified US governmental material of 1944-5. They selected some choice bits and presented it in a new(ish) section of the Peace Memorial.
What I garnered from that material is that the military didn't want the atomic bomb dropped. MacArthur, especially, expressed a view that with such action, Stalin (who was otherwise occupied in Europe) would race troops to the northern Japanese frontier and do a Berlin on Tokyo.
MacArthur also argued that victory was in sight, and he wanted to win conventionally.
The material presented in the Peace Memorial showed Truman rejected MacArther's view.
Because the US government had spent just a shade over $1 billion on the development of the bomb.
Faced with the huge cost, Truman decided that the most important attribute was that the American people would never re-elect a Democrat government if he didn't authorise the use of that weapon.
And, so, against the wishes of his own commander of forces, Truman authorised the bomb on grounds that even you would have to admit are spurious.
However, that doesn't end the matter.
Truman was advised by an aid that the first target should be Kyoto - to teach the Japanese a real lesson!!!!
Fortunately, several reasoned advisors indicated that if they dropped the bomb on Kyoto, Japanese face would be lost and they would never surrender.
So much for integrity!
#5 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 19:11
29th April, 2009
Messaging not enabled.
Sorry Bruce, you must must have missed the fact that both the museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki completely whitewash why Japan was invloved in WWII. In one of them it simply says: "Japan was hurtled into WWII" as the sole explanation. Some Japanese love playing the victim card but their military was responsible for around 20 million deaths (not including their own) during their campaigns in Asia.
As for MacArthur's view that Stalin (who was otherwise occupied in Europe) would race troops to the northern Japanese frontier and do a Berlin on Tokyo, in fact the exact opposite happened. A drawn out conventional campaign would have given Stalin further opportunity to get claim more Japanese territory than he actually managed.
#6 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 20:27
You are quite correct on the view that in the museums the Japanese minimised their position in the war.
But, then, I've yet to go to any museum within a nation where that nation articulates properly their involvement with war.
There is a saying, every generation reshapes history to suit itself.
We could re-word this to say another truism - every teller of a story about themself will tell the story to paint themself in a good light.
As an academic researcher, the whole truth on a topic was never found in the one place. One must triangulate facts to determine a semblance of reality.
On the topic of Japanese museums slanting the truth, yes, but they are no different to any other museum in any other nation. By definition of the funding and legitimacy of a museum, it is the articulation of a political expression.
So, if one wants a view on one political topic, it is helpful to go to the critic and get a perspective of the topic failures.
The fact that cannot now be denied is that the US dropped the bomb on the Japanese against military advice, and for purely domestic political reasons.
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Yes, many nations/ethnic groups love playing the victim card.
Perhaps the greatest example of a prolonged use of the victim card is by the Jews with the US government.
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Your knowledge of history appears skewed. There is no record that the Russian army were anywhere near Sakhalin or the Kurils, or stationed on Kamchatka. The nearest was an outpost Vladisvostok. History shows that upon learning of the 1st bomb detonation, Stalin ordered the Russian navy to sail to the La Perouse Straight and begin military aggression onto Japan. The limited army capacity meant that all the navy could really do was blockade. Nevertheless, at the time of surrender, Japan had lost a large part of its former lands to the Russians.
To justify a revision of fact merely to advance a sympathetic view is folly.
#7 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 05:25
"But, then, I've yet to go to any museum within a nation where that nation articulates properly their involvement with war."
Go to Dachau. The Germans have fully and completely confronted their war guilt. I served for five years in the German Army, and there was never any attempt to excuse SS or Wehrmacht behavior.
"I will readily admit that military hyperbole and propaganda incites young soldiers to do the bidding of armchair politicians hellbent of powermongering, and often this results in inhumane actions."
I wasn't talking about propaganda, I was talking about reality. When I fought the Haber Gedir they were pissing me (and all the rest of us) off. I clearly remember one event where we got a new Brigade Commander (so he hadn't learned to hate yet) and one of our snipers fired at a gunman manning an RPK on a pickup truck. The bullet passed through the gunmen into the cab of the truck, killing a pregnant woman inside. Whyen the report came over the radio our Brigade commander was distraught. The salt washed out of his body. One of my section sergeants said to him "Sir, don't worry about it. Gedir Children grow up to be Gedir gunmen." Now, in retrospect, I understand that unborn child was guilty of nothing. There was no reason for us to hate it. But at that moment, where we were dealing with a recalcitrant enemy who refused to follow any of the laws of land warfare and was treating dead and prisoners in a horrific manner, we just didn't care. Neither did I. Look at how the Japanese treated our POWs (yours and mine). Do you think this was lost on the troops fighting? Our hatred for the Japanese wasn't rooted in propaganda, it was rooted in reality.
Furthermore, whether or not Imperial Japan was close to surrender is up for conhjecture. Historical record doesn't really tell us one way or the other. BUT, what we do know, is that their troops fought with an unmathced fanaticism (with a no surrender code), that the government was run by the military, that massive firebombing of Japanese cities STILL did not compel surrender and that ever after dropping the first bomb they didn't surrender.
Painting Trumans motives as simply one of political calculation is highly unfair.
#8 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 13:22
Painting Trumans motives as simply one of political calculation is highly unfair.
Unfair yes, right, yes.
Nothing's ever going to be fair in politics!
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War stories of good and evil abound. As you'd expect, I also hold similar examples.
But, perhaps the best war story I can recount to reveal my position occurred not that long ago.
I was staying in Hoi An, a Vietnamese I met invited me to lunch at his humble abode.
When I arrived, Phuong introduced me to his brother, father and uncle. Nothing uncommon about that except his brother was an NVA regular, his father was with the VC, and his uncle a VC officer.
Phuong was conscripted into the ARVN.
At the table for lunch, each had a different history. Each talked freely of their experiences. There were no recriminations. It's true that Phuong has always been limited in his employment possibilities due to his ARVN involvement.
Each had moved on. The past exists, but at that table it didn't fashion either the structure of attitude, nor limit our collective engagement.
#9 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 13:46
"Each had moved on. The past exists, but at that table it didn't fashion either the structure of attitude, nor limit our collective engagement."
I absolutely agree with this. In 1999 I went to Eastleigh in Nairobi and spent two weeks on vacation talking with former SNA militia members I had been fighting in 93. They probably had more to resent than I - some were missing limbs courtesy of the US Army. We all had lost friends. What did become clear to me was that we were never going to see eye to eye on the root cause of the conflict or even on the outcome. But we were able to dine together and discuss the issues in a reasonable manner.
Interestingly my cleaning girls father was a former Viet Minh fighter and she has invited me to come visit her family so I can talk to her dad about the war. He's about 75 now.
#10 Posted: 12/7/2009 - 12:53
"Painting Trumans motives as simply one of political calculation is highly unfair.
Unfair yes, right, yes."
I think it's probably unfair and incorrect. Truman was a good man who had a sense of decency. Perfect? No. But decent.
#11 Posted: 12/7/2009 - 19:03
"History is written by the victors." --- attibuted to Winston Churchill
#12 Posted: 9/3/2010 - 10:57
In the modern western world, you can read historical accounts from a great many authors with a great many perspectives. You can also seek out chronologies with no interpretation.
#13 Posted: 10/3/2010 - 10:42
Yes indeed, Mac.
I saw some of the results of McNamara's work first hand, from ground level, in 1969 and 1970. That was my perspective then. It's shifted some in the last 40 years, though not to the point that I think the American War was a reasonable response to conditions and events of the time. Viewpoint of Robert McNamara et al notwithstanding.
A few nights ago I watched the film "City of Ghosts". Perhaps not one of the great films of our time, but interesting and powerful in its way. Filmed and set in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Kampot, mostly), seemingly sometime in the 1990's.
The last song of the film is Joanie Mitchell's "Both Sides Now", sung in Khmer. Poignant, and very sad. Those of us (on all sides) who lived through and beyond certain experiences of those days can perhaps see a different side now, than possible then. And perhaps that was behind McNamara's final public confessional.
I don't know. The whole lot is something I have attempted to come to terms with, personally, for many years. It is for that reason that I have returned to South-East Asia, and (happily) am returning again in a few months.
May we all find the peace and understanding we seek ... whether we know we are seeking it or not.
#14 Posted: 10/3/2010 - 12:28
By the way, the name of the band that recorded "Both Sides Now" in Khmer was called Dengue Fever.
#15 Posted: 10/3/2010 - 12:30
For anyone else intersted here's the you tube
I like Dngue Fever, how to embed you tube?
#16 Posted: 10/3/2010 - 22:16
Thanks for the link, Somsai.
#17 Posted: 10/3/2010 - 23:20
I agree. I've had to wrestle myself with some issues associated with my involvement in the conflict in Somalia. The issues there are difficult and frustrating for me.
City of Ghosts is a great film. I love the role played by Gerard Depardieu and the character of Suk was excellent. Stefan Skarsgaard with his Katoey cracks me up in the beginning, and Matt Dillon demonstrates some very good acting skills. James Caan singing in Khmer is also pretty entertaining.
#18 Posted: 11/3/2010 - 09:53
Yes, actually, it is a film with some depth to it. I agree about Depardieu.....what a character he is, and played in this movie. Caan did a great job with his role.
The film made such a profound impression on me ... and just after we watched it, I was on line looking for a cd of the soundtrack (which I found). It's a pretty good suspense/thriller type of film, but it was the elements of Cambodia's past that were brought in, that sad backdrop to where the country is today, it was that which really got me. A preface to my up-coming trip there.
Ah, but Somalia.....there too is tragedy writ large. I wish you the best in finding your peace with it. A peace that it does not appear will be coming to Somalia anytime soon, sad to say.
Best to you, Mac........
#19 Posted: 11/3/2010 - 10:39
You got the sound track. I have to get that myself.
#20 Posted: 11/3/2010 - 16:30
Yeah --- the soundtrack is great. Then, yesterday, after listening to the soundtrack for a couple of days, I went out to a local music store and found a copy of Dengue Fever's first CD (called "Dengue Fever").
The soundtrack cd is out of print, by the way. I found it on Amazon, though.
#21 Posted: 11/3/2010 - 20:52
Here's an interesting piece of cross-pollination from another TF thread:
It sort of brings together the main theme of this thread (the effects upon South-East Asia of the prejudices, cultural biases and geo-political machinations of a small group of American politicians, and Robert McNamara in particular [but let's not forget Nixon, Kissinger, et al]) with the film and music that I first mentioned in #14 and later, above.
The other TF thread, BTW, has to do with "what music is best to listen to whilst traveling?".
#22 Posted: 13/3/2010 - 11:33
Clarification: the music thread I mentioned above is "Travelling Music", on the Idle Banter page.
#23 Posted: 13/3/2010 - 11:35
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