— Long after the bugles played and the flags were folded, there was the apology. It was 20 years in coming.
The man was old, 79. It was time.
“We were wrong, terribly wrong,” said Robert S. McNamara. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
McNamara had been one of the “whiz kids” who rebuilt Ford Motor Company after World War II. He devised an approach to logistics and systems and he brought that to public policy as the country’s eighth Secretary of Defense, first for John F. Kennedy, then for Lyndon B. Johnson.
McNamara has been called the chessmaster of the Vietnam war. Between 1961 and 1968, McNamara appeared often on American television, explaining the escalation of our forces in South Vietnam.
Everything about McNamara projected certainty and confidence. He was buttoned down and squared away. A full head of slicked back hair, wire rim glasses, a strong lantern jaw and tailored suits. He knew things — things no others could possibly understand. His middle name, that “S”’ was for “Strange.”
Robert Strange McNamara lived to be 93 and died in 2009, haunted by his blunders that killed thousands of young Americans, and yet maybe lucid enough to see his successors march more Americans into battle in the irrational belief we could supply fairness to Iraq or instill honesty in Afghanistan.
McNamara had been the central character in an award-winning documentary, “The Fog of War,” in 2003 that included 11 lessons from life and 11 lessons from Vietnam and an additional 10 lessons on the DVD, which were apparently afterthoughts to his afterthoughts. Always the analyst.
Number 5 from the Vietnam list said “We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.”
That old “hearts and minds” mantra echoed as we began to spend young lives and endless treasure to seed democracy in Fallujah and build empty schools beyond Kabul.
“The fog of war” refers to the impossibility of making the correct decisions in the middle of a conflict. Maybe that is true on the battlefields, in the war rooms and down the hallways of power and influence.
Out here, where citizenship happens, long before “the peace with honor,” while young men continued to die as old men argued about the shape of their table, we knew the truth about Vietnam. Yes, we did.
By 1965, public opinion polling found that 59 percent of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake. A year later, a Gallup poll found 71 percent of those age 21-29 knew it was a mistake.
When Muhammad Ali declined the draft in 1966, he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
The task of winning hearts and minds failed here at home, costing Lyndon Johnson his presidency and Robert Mc-Namara his reputation.
By then, 25,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam.
Today, there are 58,267 names etched into black granite on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, young Americans who never celebrated a 30th birthday, who never heard the apology.
What we learned from Vietnam is unclear. America has marched over some of the same ground in the past 13 years — hearts and minds, tactics and technology, what is best for other people. What we hoped we had learned, however, is that we can respect and love the warrior, even if we did not understand or support the war.
Those who went to southeast Asia are in failing health now, feeling the effects of time and service, in need of the care we promised and deserving of the gratitude they earned, as do their younger brothers and sisters in arms from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Out here, where citizenship happens, it is our duty to hire the people who will care for our veterans and fulfill those promises and fire those who won’t. Do that, so apologies won’t be needed.
Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.