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Letters at 3AM
If we can ascribe a meaning to it will we be less afraid? Or will we have again merely deadened, for however brief a moment, our sense of senselessness?
A sensation of senselessness has been pervasive among us for some time. Many date its beginning, sentimentally, to the assassination of John Kennedy. More acute observers go back to Hiroshima or Auschwitz. But most agree that a nameless dread became unavoidable in daily life during the Vietnam War. More than guilt, it is this dread that has kept us from coming to terms with that war. We had plenty to be guilty about before Vietnam, but those things didn't seem to bother us as much. They inspired rage in some, yet didn't invoke dread. But sometime during that war we began to smell dread in the very air, and nothing since has cleansed us.
A man named Robert MacNamara, who 30 years ago was our Secretary of Defense and privy to the highest levels of information (or "intelligence," as it's called), recently published a memoir that performs at least one service: It assures, once and for all, that nobody's ever going to make much sense of Vietnam. And also that, if our dread comes from a sensation of senselessness, then we'd better get used to it.
They called it "MacNamara's War" because he, more than anyone, was responsible for its strategy. Now he says that "we [he and his fellow strategists] were wrong, terribly wrong." They over-estimated the effectiveness of high-tech weapons, and wouldn't admit, though proof mounted every day, that you can't cripple an agrarian people by bombing. Their "domino theory," that said if one country went "communist" many would follow, was a paranoid fantasy. They ignored 1,000 years of conflict between Vietnam and China, and couldn't see that North Vietnam was China's enemy, not its ally. Didn't even understand that North Vietnam was fighting a nationalist, not a political, war.
Yet at the time, there were a lot of 18-year-olds demonstrating against the war who, it turns out, understood these issues quite well, and made precisely those points. The kids had no access to classified "intelligence," but read books and newspapers that anyone could read. Dwell on this a moment. It is an extraordinary fact. Billions of dollars were spent gathering Mac-Namara's "intelligence." By comparison, the kids spent pennies for theirs. Yet history has proven that the kids got it right.
The Nineties bear a horror of those Sixties kids, usually explained by the social and sexual behavior of a small percentage called "hippies." It seems a disproportionate amount of horror to be directed at what a very few did for six or seven years - especially when most of those kids grew to be such solid stalwarts of the middle class. But the horror makes more sense, if it's sense you're looking for, if it has more to do with the fear that on the biggest issue of their day (Vietnam), the enormous data-processing system that was called "the establishment" got it wrong, and the kids got it right. This, far more than LSD, is quite enough to unhinge a culture. It undermines every assumption about who-knows-what upon which culture is built.
For government derives its authority less from the consent of the governed than from a general consensus about who knows what and who knows best. When enough people begin to feel that their government not only doesn't know best, but doesn't know much, authority begins to fall apart.
Robert MacNamara's memoirs have been so disturbing because they demonstrate that, at the highest levels of government, powerful people felt they were making disastrous mistakes, yet couldn't stop themselves. MacNamara could not bring himself to change policy, resign, or speak out. The violent deaths of 58,000 Americans and three to four million Vietnamese are horrifying no matter why they died. But what deepens the dread beyond measure is that the people implementing these decisions didn't even think they were right; rather, though MacNamara and others knew they were wrong, they simply couldn't stop themselves - couldn't control themselves.
When the inability to control oneself causes the death of even one other person, it's often defined clinically as insanity. Nobody knows how to define it when it causes deaths in the millions.
In a search for sense, commentators have been blaming MacNamara personally, buying into the idea that it really was "MacNamara's War." They cherish the notion that if he had spoken out in 1966 or '67, when he'd come to the conclusion that America's policy was doomed, everything would have been different.
As Hemingway once said, "Isn't it pretty to think so?" But it's easy to forget two factors: first, that before the Watergate coverage of 1973-74, most American journalists parroted the official government line so faithfully that now we'd hardly call it "reporting." From The New York Times on down, they felt it was their patriotic duty to print government hand-outs that they knew were inaccurate, when it involved issues of "national security." (As the Gulf War proved, many still feel this way.) Second: in 1966, the vast majority of Americans not only were solidly pro-war, but had a deep faith that their government told the truth. It is difficult now to comprehend what contempt middle America had for the anti-war movement then. President Lyndon Johnson was already circulating rumors to the press that Robert MacNamara was having a "nervous breakdown." If, in fact, MacNamara had gone public with his doubts, Johnson was preparing an "official line" that MacNamara had gone crazy. The press would have parroted Johnson's line, and most Americans would have believed it. Would basic policy have changed? Maybe, but not much, and not quickly.
This doesn't clear MacNamara in any way. He's a coward and a war criminal. He was having serious doubts before the war escalated in 1964, and that was the time to make his move. But, alas, as he fails to mention: '64 was an election year. Thereafter, his policy killed many more children, women, and men every day than terrorists in Oklahoma City did last week. The same is true of Walt Rostow, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and all who wreaked horror on Vietnam from the sanctuary of their protected offices. But blaming them, and blaming MacNamara, is just another pathetic stab at making sense of the senseless.
For it wasn't MacNamara's War, or theirs. It was ours.
Tolstoy said in War and Peace, "the activity of the millions who migrate, burn houses, abandon agriculture [and industry], and slaughter one another, is never expressed in the account of the activity of some dozen men who did not burn houses, abandon their fields [and factories], or slay their fellow creatures."
Vietnam was the war of every taxpayer who consented to pay for it, as much as it was the war of every young soldier who was "just following orders." It was the war of every protester who loved protesting so much that they regretted when there was no more war to protest. It was the war of every laborer and union leader who defended the "defense industry," and the war of every entrepreneur who profited. It was the war of every teacher who taught our history as a cartoon of pretty lies, and the war of every minister so blasphemous as to invoke God as our spiritual A-bomb. It was the war of every person who didn't care how their comforts were "defended," so long as they didn't have to think too much.
Unlike MacNamara, the rest of us can say that Vietnam wasn't our idea. But when you consider the carnage, that's not much to hide behind. It took the entire country to make that war - not just a few crazies in the White House.
It was ugly then, and no amount of lies and revision will make it less ugly. MacNamara can be thanked, at least, for reminding us just how ugly and pointless it really was, and for making the lies harder to tell. (Notice how silent Newt and his crew have been about him?) But we're just going to have to live with the dread of its meaninglessness, because it didn't make sense then, and it's never going to.