“Don’t make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five.”
— Robert MacNamara, The Fog of War
The visceral images from 9/11 allowed the U.S. military to act with uncharacteristic speed — launching attacks on Afghanistan while the ruins of the Twin Towers were still smoldering.
The road to full-blown American involvement in Vietnam was much slower… despite Robert MacNamara’s efforts to speed things up. MacNamara had been a junior officer in World War II doing statistical analysis. Afterwards he worked for the Ford Motor Company as an executive.
We’re not sure how he ended up as the Secretary of Defense. “I’m not qualified,” he told President John F. Kennedy when the job was offered to him. But he took the post, and over the next seven years, he proved it.
When he entered office, there were only about 900 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam — “advisers” that President Eisenhower had sent to train South Vietnam forces. At MacNamara’s suggestion, Kennedy increased that number to 16,000.
In October 1961, U.S. generals suggested sending 8,000 American combat troops to actually fight alongside the South Vietnamese forces. MacNamara said that wouldn’t be nearly enough — insisting we send six divisions — approximately 60,000-90,000 men.
Quite a big ask from a man who later admitted he “entered the Pentagon with a limited grasp of military affairs and even less grasp of covert operations.”
Kennedy denied his request to put more boots on the ground in Vietnam. For the rest of JFK’s term — cut short, of course, by an assassin’s bullet — the president was committed to the idea of training the Vietnamese to fight for themselves.
His successor, Lyndon Johnson, continued that sentiment, at first. He said in 1964, “The South Vietnamese have the basic responsibility for the defense of their own freedom.”
MacNamara worked hard to change the president’s mind, convinced that a communist Vietnam would be devastating to the world… not to mention America’s image. “The South Vietnam conflict is regarded as a test case of U.S. capacity to help a nation meet a Communist ‘war of liberation,’” he wrote in a memo urging for more troops.
He finally got his wish thanks to a pair of incidents in the Tonkin Gulf. The first was an attack on the USS Maddox, which may have been a mistake. The North Vietnamese now say they never authorized it. A few days later, the USS Turner Joy claimed it had been attacked, too, though it was never proven. It may not have even happened.
Still, Americans said they believed Hanoi was intentionally widening the war. The United States felt it had to retaliate, not for any particular reason, but merely because it felt it had to do something and didn’t know what else to do. Before long, the United States had 200,000 of its own troops in Vietnam.
The resulting war was not merely a tragedy; or even a crime. It was a farce. American troops had been sent to kill people they didn’t know, in a country they had never been, for reasons none of them could understand, by men as benighted as they were.
MacNamara later admitted what he’d done was “terribly, terribly wrong,” as we’ve said. But he seemed to largely regard the whole affair as a series of unfortunate errors, miscalculations, misunderstandings and mistakes.
In fact, despite the public weeping, MacNamara didn’t seem to notice that he sent men to kill, who were not always too particular about whom they killed.
When a man sticks a knife in his neighbor, it is not easy to disguise what is really happening. The event is right in front of him.
But the fog of war, as Prussian General Carl Clausewitz called it, multiplies by the square of the distance from it. In the Oval Office or the war rooms of the Pentagon, the transactions that took place in Vietnam became “costs” or “losses” or “collateral damage.”
Moreover, the loss in Vietnam didn’t put an end to the country’s distorted view of empire building, which tried to grow through replication instead of outright conquest. U.S. troops went into Grenada, Panama and more with the express purpose of replacing governments that Washington didn’t like with more “democratic” ones.
The inability to mind its own business is what led America to meddle in various Middle East affairs — making people in the region so angry that they sought vengeance on U.S. citizens with the only tools they had available.
As the retreat from Afghanistan shows, the fog of the Vietnam war never fully lifted.
Founder, The Financial Reserve