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Remorse of a warmonger

Robert McNamara was brought in to mastermind Kennedy's victory in Vietnam, but realised the war was unwinnable.

The death of Robert McNamara, the most influential and infamous American defence secretary of the 20th century, was always going to be a major news event on both sides of the Atlantic, so identified was he with the Vietnam war, or "McNamara's war", as Senator Wayne Morse called it in 1964. But his passing in his own bed this week, aged 93, has special resonance in London and Washington, where politicians are grappling with an ever-deepening and more lethal engagement in Afghanistan.

For the time being the US president Barack Obama, still on electoral honeymoon, has the benefit of the doubt, but the British government is struggling to convince an increasingly sceptical electorate why precisely its forces are engaged in such an ill-defined and dangerous campaign. A week ago, the Welsh Guards lost their commanding officer to a roadside bomb and six other British servicemen perished in as many days.

Why are Americans, British and Canadians there? Bob Ainsworth, the mid-ranking Labour loyalist who was made defence secretary in Gordon Brown's recent Cabinet reshuffle, rushed to deliver a speech at Chatham House in London. The Afghan mission was a "hard and dangerous" conflict that went to "the core of our national interests", and he added that "we will win". Perhaps it was McNamara's death two days earlier that prompted many people in London to ask: "Win what, exactly?" and "Where have we heard that before?"

In his later years, McNamara could be seen walking anonymously through downtown Washington DC dressed in a pale suit and running shoes, his face fixed with his "thousand-yard stare", as The New York Times's obituary memorably put it this week. That stare was born of guilt and shame, for his having been the man who more than anyone else ratcheted up the most disastrous conflict in US history while keeping his doubts about its morality and winnability to himself.

McNamara sent half a million American troops to Vietnam, 58,000 of whom came back in body bags, and that toll was dwarfed by the estimated 1.4 million Vietnamese who perished. While the fighting raged, he thanked Senator Morse for attaching his name to the war. "I am pleased to be identified with it," he said, "and do whatever I can to win it." That is what he said in public, yet in private he increasingly had doubts, which he kept mostly to himself, until the publication of his sensational 1995 memoir, in which he described the war as "wrong, terribly wrong".

America's liberal establishment was unimpressed by this tardy mea culpa. "Mr McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen," The New York Times said at the time. "Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late."

And now, with McNamara dead, it is impossible not to wonder: President George W Bush, did you really believe in the Iraq war? Do you think that peace, democracy and girls' schools can really be brought to the tribal chaos that is Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun? Is Donald Rumsfeld, at this very moment, penning an exculpatory memoir protesting that his private objections to the war on terror were over-ridden by hawks in the George W Bush White House? It seems unlikely, but then the anti-Vietnam protesters of the 1960s and 1970s never expected to hear the architect of that war recant in such extravagant terms.

McNamara was a charter member of the group of highly talented men - many of them educated on army scholarships immediately after the Second World War - who were summoned to join the Camelot White House. Born into a comfortable middle-class family in San Francisco, McNamara was not part of the gilded Kennedy circle, but was rather a precocious student of the highest art of statistics, and the youngest ever professor at Harvard Business School.

This was, at the turn of the 1960s, the age of optimism with its celebration of science and the arts, the challenge of breaching frontiers, of reaching space and landing a man on the Moon, as the grey men - the likes of the former presidents Truman and Eisenhower - slipped into the realm of history. Most of this emerging generation had had a "good war", if not a moral war. McNamara had served under General Curtis LeMay, the hardliner who oversaw the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities causing the deaths of some 900,000 civilians. As McNamara later conceded, had the Allies lost the war, he and his comrades might have been charged with war crimes.

For McNamara and others who had been through the horror of that war, salvation seemed to be in taking the lead in building the gleaming new optimistic America, and winning the Cold War. He quit a stellar career with Ford Motors, answering John F Kennedy's call to force through long-overdue reforms of the Pentagon's structure. Kennedy called him the smartest man he had ever met, and he was tough too, even by Washington standards, peering gimlet-eyed through his wire-rimmed glasses, icily aloof, his hair slicked back and precisely parted. But Vietnam proved too much even for this preternaturally self-assured man. By 1965, tens of thousands of American combat troops were pouring into Vietnam, and US bombers were pounding the enemy in the Rolling Thunder campaign, involving 55,000 missions dropping 33,000 tons of bombs over North Vietnam. Within a year, the firepower had been increased to 148,000 flights with 128,000 tonnes of ordnance. He applied the cold statistical analysis he had studied at Harvard to the war effort, and believed any logistical obstacle could be overcome through proper management and enhanced manpower.

That was one of the bitter ironies of that war. It was conceived and fought by young men who self-consciously thought themselves to be set apart from the war-time generation, and yet Vietnam came to drag the country back, and sour the mood of the nation, far into the 1970s. It is sometimes said that the British ruling class lost their moral authority at the Battle of the Somme. Vietnam made Americans similarly sceptical half a century later, when they were astounded to discover that democratic governments do indeed lie to their people.

Even as he ordered Rolling Thunder on, McNamara conceded in a private briefing to American reporters in February 1966 that "no amount of bombing can end the war". That view was to become the post-Vietnam orthodoxy at the Pentagon, and informed the entire thinking behind the Gulf war of 1990, when Gen Colin Powell argued that only "total war" - air power plus boots on the ground - could achieve victory.

Significantly, it was a lesson that had been unlearnt again by the time Rumsfeld - another defence secretary who wanted to kick over tables at the Pentagon - persuaded George W Bush that Iraq could be liberated and stabilised with only 145,000 American troops. McNamara and Rumsfeld had another thing in common: both arrived at the Pentagon determined to slash spending and wasteful pork barrel projects; and both oversaw vastly increased defence budgets, partly as a consequence of embarking upon ultimately unwinnable wars.

The principal charge against McNamara lies in the moral cowardice he displayed in his failure to raise his concerns about Vietnam publicly. In May 1967, he wrote privately to President Lyndon Johnson: "There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one." Yet after he was fired a few months later by Johnson - who believed he might be planning to assist Bobby Kennedy's anti-war ticket - and was given a lucrative billet running the World Bank, he never spoke up against the war he had devised. His public opposition at that crucial moment could have tipped opinion against the war, brought it to an earlier end and saved thousands of American lives.

McNamara is now fixed in a younger generation's mind because of the drama of his starring role in Errol Morris's documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara, which won an Oscar on its release in 2003. His defenders thought it a brave and candid attempt to confront the demons of his own career; others found it disingenuous and self-serving. There is an astonishing moment in the film when an emotional McNamara spoke of Norman Morrison, a Quaker protester who set himself on fire near McNamara's office at the Pentagon in 1965 in a fatal gesture against the Vietnam war. "How much evil must we do in order to do good?" McNamara asked. * The National

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