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Robert Gates, Meet Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara is dead.

So are two to three million people in Vietnam and Laos whom he outlived by three decades.

And so are tens of thousands of U.S. troops whom he outlived also.

McNamara wasn’t solely responsible for their deaths. Kennedy and Johnson bear the biggest burden—and Nixon after McNamara sought asylum at the World Bank.

But McNamara did more than his share, as Defense Secretary, to map out the U.S. war strategy in Vietnam and to stress body counts, as if that were any decent yardstick for winning—either morally or militarily. He also authorized the widespread use of napalm and carpet-bombing, which wreaked widespread horror.

One of the best and the brightest, he led one of the sorriest and most brutal and most foolish wars the United States has ever waged.

To his credit, he finally grasped some of the hideousness of it all.


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But he never did anything significant, when he was in power, to try to extricate the United States from that war, even when he understood it might be unwinnable.

Today, Robert Gates and his boss, Barack Obama, might want to learn a thing or two from Robert Strange McNamara.

On CNN back in 1996, McNamara said: "External military force cannot reconstruct a failed state, and Vietnam, during much of that period, was a failed state politically. We didn't recognize it as such."

We ought to recognize that Afghanistan is a failed state politically.

“Today, Afghanistan is a mafia state,” Malalai Joya, the feminist member of the Afghan parliament, said in a speech in Oslo in early June. “The U.S. and its allies are busy in the warloridzation, criminalization, and druglordization of our wounded land.” (The Progressive is reprinting her speech in its August issue, along with a great speech by Naomi Klein on Sarah Palin. Subscribe now to get that issue when it comes out in a few weeks.)

Gates and Obama, like McNamara and Johnson before them, believe that “external military force” can get the job done, despite the failed state that exists.

It didn’t work in Vietnam. And it won’t work in Afghanistan.

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Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.

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