McNamara occupies a special place in the history of the War, first as the Defense Secretary who oversaw the escalation from 1961-1967, and much later (much much later), and almost as famously, for his public self-flagellation over what he called in his 1995 book In Retrospect the "wrong, terribly wrong" nature of the War.
For some time in the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War was often known as "McNamara's War." There was a good reason for this. One of the most disturbing things about the Vietnam War was the way it appeared to be a grotesque apotheosis of instrumental rationality bereft of all moral grounding: McNamara's decisions about strategy and tactics for killing millions of peasants were cost-benefited, game-theorized, and run through all the latest and most rigorous forms of algorithmic analysis. This approach to the War belonged entirely to McNamara, the former Ford Motor Company CEO and "whiz kid," who more than anyone else embodied what David Halberstam called, in one of journalism's most witheringly ironic phrases, "the best and the brightest." Whatever one's critiques of War, one would have been hard pressed to deny the stringently "rational" nature of the War.
I came to McNamara as a young historian of American ideas and foreign policy during McNamara's heyday, so my revulsion from McNamara was not viscerally bound up with the immediate politics of the War. Instead, it had more to do with McNamara's insidious effort to rehabilitate his moral reputation late in life with the publication of In Retropsect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, and even more with Errol Morris's brilliant but flawed movie, "The Fog of War." I say "flawed" because Morris bought McNamara's self-perception that his late-in-life alleged mea culpa constituted some kind of "moral seriousnessness" on McNamara's part.
It did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, to his dying day McNamara never understood the moral nature of what he had done in Vietnam. The "lessons" he drew from his experiences running the Vietnam War were all operational, instrumental lessons--lessons about how to improve cognition, decision-making processes. If only we had had better information about the enemy, McNamara begs, or better communication channels with the enemy, then it all would have turned out so much better. In sum, McNamara's desperate plea in both "The Fog of War" and In Retrospect is for people to perceive his role in the War as the result of foolishness, not knavery.
In fact, however, the essential moral crime of Vietnam was not that it was operationally mishandled, but that it was evil--it was evil for the United States to kill millions of peasants on the other side of the world over an ideological dispute. Full stop. And that core moral point is one that McNamara never, ever copped to.
Yes, a better operational approach might have made some marginal difference. But the fundamental problem was not an operational but a moral one. As someone once remarked about Samuel Huntington, who suffered from the same moral blindness as McNamara, he "lost the capacity to distinguish between genocide and urbanization."
When pressed by skeptical boomer interviewers, McNamara insisted that he was not asking for forgiveness, that he was not apologizing. Indeed he was not. Because to ask for foregiveness, or to apologize in a serious way, would have meant acknowledging the moral weight of his crimes--something he never did. His much quoted phrase about the War being "wrong, terribly wrong" was widely misinterpreted as an (all-too-belated) moral reckoning. But it was no such thing. In fact, what McNamara meant by this phrase was that, in his mind, the whole war was the result of a misunderstanding. The only surprise about the fact that the Vietnamese reacted to this interpretation with polite skepticism... is the fact that they were polite.
McNamara was knave, not a fool. Or perhaps he was a fool, too, but above all and to his end he was a self-serving, morally unserious knave.