Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reflecting on the lessons of Robert McNamara's war

The death of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at age 93 has reopened the debate on his role, first as architect for the Vietnam War, and then later in apologizing for it with his 1995 book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam." Since a hawk with a conscience is a rare commodity, McNamara deserves the attention he is getting.

One of his post-Vietnam "lessons" was the need to "empathise" with the alleged enemy — to realize that they are humans like we are with legitimate desires and hopes. It is a very worthy goal. But how do you do that once the shooting begins and bombs begin to to fall?

The hawks and their well-subsidized camp followers in the think tanks, universities and media take over, dragging public opinion behind them. The enemy is dehumanized. McNamara is said to have realized the futility of the Vietnam War as early as 1967 — before he moved to head the World Bank (April 1968). But that did not stop the war from continuing another eight years, with even more dreadful killing and bombing.

One of McNamara's braver acts was visiting Hanoi after the war to meet with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and other Vietnamese military leaders and discuss the war that had obsessed him for decades. The filmed version, broadcast in 1998 and only in Japan, it seems, thanks to announcer Hideo Yamamuro and other NHK progressives, is even more powerful than the book. It shows a genuinely contrite McNamara exposed directly to the Vietnamese point of view, namely that it was purely a civil war, that it had no connection with China or falling dominoes (a Washington obsession earlier shared by McNamara) and that originally it had not even been anti-American. So why had they been subjected to a brutality rarely seen in human warfare?

One dramatic moment had McNamara pointing out how a key element in a U.S. decision seriously to escalate the war had been the 1965 Vietnamese attack on the U.S. Pleiku Air Base the day a senior U.S. official arrived in Saigon. The United States was determined it could not be humiliated in this way.

We then saw the amazed North Vietnamese commander responsible for the attack asking how, isolated in the jungle, he could even have known about the official's visit. His decision was based purely on the weather and other local factors at the time. Meanwhile, back in Washington, it was being seen as yet another link in Hanoi's dastardly plans.

And so it continued — a catalog of mistakes, lies, deceptions, foolishness and misunderstanding that makes even the U.S. war in Iraq look sane. I was somewhat involved as midlevel Australian diplomat based in Moscow in the early '60s. The Australian government had decided, without the benefit of even a single Vietnamese speaker in its establishment, that in the April 1965 words of the then Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, "the takeover of South Vietnam must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans." At around the same time the Australian foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, told us that China was determined to establish hegemony in Southeast Asia "working in the first place through the agency of her North Vietnamese puppets."

On this basis Canberra had quixotically decided that it was our job in Moscow to persuade the Soviets to join the West in restraining a belligerent China. I was sent to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pass on our regrets over Moscow's failure to realize China's evil role in promoting the Vietnam war. Hasluck himself came to Moscow to pass on the same message, only to be met by a puzzled Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, saying there was no way Moscow would want to cease its support for the brave Vietnamese people seeking national independence, and he hoped the Chinese would do a lot more too.

Even then the evidence of China's weak support for Vietnam was obvious. Simply by talking to the many North Vietnamese students in Moscow at the time, one could confirm that Hanoi was pro-Moscow and China was distrusted. Beijing was to prove this by launching a grubby little border war against Vietnam a few years later. Yet in the West our best and brightest had convinced themselves the Vietnam war was a Chinese plot.

In 1965 I was to leave the diplomatic service and join the anti-Vietnam war debate, convinced it was only a matter of time before people would realize the China was not involved, that it was in fact a civil war in which our side was busily killing a lot of brave Vietnamese who simply wanted to reunify their nation (as had been promised by an international agreement) and to oppose a corrupt, cruel, artificial, U.S.-controlled government in Saigon. We should have saved our collective breath. If anything we prolonged the war, giving the people at the top an added incentive to try to prove us wrong.

Today the magic word is "terrorist." In those days it was "communist." The very words were able to conjure up images of evil men hiding out and preparing to kill our brave soldiers. Talk of empathising — realising that these people had to hide out in order to survive, and that many were fighting in response to the brutality and killings by our side — has long been out of the question. Only when, as in Vietnam, our side is defeated despite its overwhelming military superiority do a few like McNamara have the moral responsibility to admit their mistake. We have yet to see any similar responsibility in Australia, despite its at times crucial role in encouraging the U.S. into Vietnam.

 元米国防長官ロバート・マクナマラが93歳で亡くなり、彼の果たした役割について議論が再び活発になっている 一つは、ベトナム戦争の遂行者として、もう一つは、後に1995年に出版した著書「マクナマラ回顧録 ベトナムの悲劇と教訓」の中でこれについて謝罪したこと、である。良心的なタカ派というのは稀有種であり、マクナマラは高い関心を集めるに値する。

 ベトナム後の彼の教訓の一つは、いわゆる敵とされた人々に対して共感すること 彼らもわれわれと同じ人間で、正当な要求や希望を持っていることを理解すること が必要だというものである。これは非常に立派な目標だ。だが,一旦撃ちあいが始まり爆弾が降ってくる中で、いかにしてそれが実行できるか。

 タカ派や、諸々のシンクタンク、大学、メディア内部の潤沢な資金を持つタカ派陣営追随者が、世論を引きずり、優勢になり支配権を握る。すると敵は非人間化される。マクナマラはすでに1967 彼が世銀のトップに転身した19684月以前 という早い時期にベトナム戦争の不毛さを自覚していたといわれる。だがそれは、その戦争がそれ以後さらに8年間続き、前にも増して恐ろしい殺戮と爆撃が続くのを止めることができなかった。



 ことほどさように、ことは進んだ 過ち、嘘、欺瞞、愚かさ、そして誤解のオンパレード  アメリカのイラク戦争さえまだまともに見えてしまうほどのものだった。私は1960年初期モスクワ駐在の中間レベルの外交官としていささかこれに関わりがあった。オーストラリア政府は、内部にベトナム語を話せる人間一人としていない状態のまま、19654月元首相ロバート・メンジーズのことばによれば南ベトナムの乗っ取りは、中国のインド洋と太平洋間への進出の一環としてみる必要があると決定。同じ頃オーストラリア外務大臣ポール・ハスラックは、中国は東南アジアに覇権を握る決意でおり、まず手はじめに、北ベトナムの中国の傀儡たちを手先に使って工作を進めていると言明した。