What did we learn from Vietnam?

The death of Robert McNamara creates an apt occasion to consider the Vietnam War. For many Americans, it’s already ancient history. In fact, most of my students know more about the Civil War than about the decades-long Southeast Asian conflict that consumed millions of lives.

But for Americans of a certain age, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during much of the war, represents that episode in our history better than anyone. When he died last week at age 93, he was one of the last of the men responsible for carrying on the misguided conflict that became "McNamara’s war."

The Vietnam-era presidents are long gone: Eisenhower, who provided resources to the wrong side for at least a decade before American troops arrived; Kennedy, whose misgivings about the war were eliminated with his assassination on November 22, 1963; Johnson, who escalated Vietnam into a real war; and Nixon, who perpetuated the bloodshed long after the war, in practical terms, was over.

The generals are gone, as well: Maxwell Taylor, Earle Wheeler, William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams. And with the death of McNamara, so are most of the young civilians — the "whiz kids" chronicled by writer David Halberstam — who administered the war according to their flawed faith in the organizational and management capacities of the corporate world. About the only principal left is Henry Kissinger.

But there are still plenty of survivors of the Vietnam War among us, late-middle-aged men — and a smaller number of women — who honorably performed what they believed was their duty when they were young. Others survived long after the war ended, but eventually couldn’t cope with what the war had done to their lives. And there are the old people who never fully recovered from the loss of a child among the 58,000 American soldiers who didn’t make it home.

The irony, of course, is that even though the effects of the wars we fight linger long after the details themselves are forgotten, we rarely learn anything from them. The generals are famous for always fighting the last war. But the politicians and the rest of us don’t learn much either, especially from a war like the one in Vietnam, whose purposes and goals were vague and dubious to begin with.

So, 35 years later, if we bother to think about the war, at all, we find ourselves wondering what all the suffering was for.

A few days after McNamara died an Oliphant political cartoon pictured him being welcomed warmly into Hell by Satan himself, as demons nearby celebrate amid the flames. A character asks, "Is Henry the K here yet?"

Both these men have a lot to answer for, but this judgment seems harsh. Our criticism of them should be tempered by the fact of our continued willingness to use war in the service of our interests, rather than as a last resort.

At present, we’re carrying on two undeclared wars in the midst of considerable uncertainty about their purposes, benefits, or goals. We’re desperate to portray Iraq as a "victory," but the predictable increase in civilian deaths and the threat of chaos before we’ve even left the country challenge that depiction.

And while the war in Afghanistan seemed like a worthy cause eight years ago, many Americans have only a vague sense its purpose now and no clear concept of how our current tactics can achieve that purpose in a land that has served as a sinkhole for the armies of the great powers for generations.

So, as the deaths — Afghani civilians and Americans and 15 British soldiers in the last 10 days — mount up in Afghanistan, this war calls for a scrupulous re-examination of its goals and our capacity to reach them.

Perhaps we know what we’re doing in Afghanistan. But at one point the "best and the brightest" thought they understood Vietnam perfectly. Years later we discovered, after great national cost, that unquestioning faith in our leadership was unjustified.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)