Posts Tagged ‘Robert McNamara’

A Boomer Looks Back

September 5, 2016

VietMem2

Now that I’ve been growing up for 65 years, I am at last approaching some semblance of adulthood.

During the course of my baby’boomer lifetime, I have seen some changes; some of them I am actually starting to comprehend.

Now I look back on it all and find myself wondering about some things, but quite sure about some other things.

Several years ago, my wife and I spent some vacation time on the island of Maui, in the great state of Hawaii. While driving one afternoon down the western slope of Hale’akala volcano, we happened upon a memorial to a great man named Sun Yat-sen.

In his lifetime, during the early 20th century–1911, Sun lead many of his countrymen in a revolution that deposed the old monarchy of their country–the Chinese Qing dynasty. But before that happened, he had spent some time in Hawaii; that’s why there’s as statue of him there.

At the base of Sun Yat-sen’s memorial a quote from him is carved in the stone, and this is what is said:

LOOK INTO THE NATURE OF THINGS

Ever since I saw that, I have been working that pearl of wisdom into my way of living as much as I can. And this principle of living and learning has been not only a motivation for me toward acquiring useful knowledge, but also a source of great joy and satisfaction.

This principle is expanded in the Proverbs of the Bible: Understanding is a fountain of life to one who has it. Proverbs 16:22.

Now this may seem like a philosophical idea, but it is really very productive in the living of real life. Here’s a nuts n’ bolts example:

In 1992, when I was still a young man of 41, working as a carpenter to provide for our three children, and for my wife who had not yet become a nurse, and for our household, I took a job with a construction company remodeling (a refurb job) an old K-Mart. My job was to tear old stuff out from around the inside perimeter of the store and replace it with a newer style of retail display.

I had been visiting K-Marts ever since I was a teenager in the 1960’s. So I had been seeing those retail structures for most of my life. But to look behind the facade, into the structure, and then to reconstruct the structure based on newer, more modern components–this work experience held a strange satisfaction for me, as well as a source of income for a season of our life.

Working on that K-Mart was more than a paycheck; it was a joy to behold as the various phases of reconstruction unfolded beneath my hands and before my eyes.

Look into the nature (or structure) of things!

Many years have passed; now I’m looking back on it all. Part of the outcome from this reflection will be a novel that I am now researching and writing. It is a story that takes place during the time of my youth; it has become a cathartic process for reconciling the difference between what I thought I knew then and what I now know about that turbulent period of my g-generation’s growing up.

Ours was the generation whose maturing was said to be delayed because Dr. Spock wrote a book about child care that–as some have judged it–convinced our mothers to spoil us.

While there may be an element of truth to that judgement, I have noticed in my conversations with some people lately that there is category of folks in our boomer generation who were definitely not spoiled:

Those guys and gals who fulfilled their duty to our country by going to fight the war in Vietnam–they found themselves in a situation where they had to grow up in one hell of a hurry.

What I am seeing now is, in my g-generation, there was a great divide between: Them that went, and them that didn’t.

While I was college freshman in 1969, trying to figure out what life was all about, and marching against the war, those guys who who went to ‘Nam were required–and yeah I say unto thee–forced to figure out how to keep life pumping through their bodies and the bodies of their buddies who fought with them.

Those soldiers who went over there had to grow up a lot quicker than I did.

I did not go to Vietnam. My lottery number in 1970 was 349, so I literally “lucked out” of it.

During that time, a time when I was stepping lightly through ivory-tower lala land, our soldiers on the other side of the world were trudging through jungles, heavy-laden with weapons and survival gear. While I was privileged to be extending my literacy skills,  they were committed to learning how to kill the enemy before he kills “us.”

Now it turns out my research about the ’60’s is swirling around two undeniable maelstroms of socio-political showdown: civil rights and the Vietnam war.

So, in my project of looking into the nature of things in the 1960’s, I am learning about that war and how it came to be a major American (undeclared) war instead of just a civil war between Vietnamese.

One thing I have found is that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara undertook a similar project in 1965. When he was in the thick of it all–as one of the best and brightest industrial leaders of that age, having been recruited as an insider in the White House, then calling the shots on major events, wielding incredible military power on the other side of the planet, in the heat of the moment and in the fog of war, he found himself wanting to know. . .

how the hell did this happen? how the hell did we get here?

McNamara’s question lead to a .gov-commissioned research project, paid for on our taxpayer dime, and ultimately made public by the primary researcher of that undertaking, a former Marine Lt. Col. named Daniel Ellsberg.

Look deep into it. In Ellsberg’s case he looked deep into 7000 pages of military documentation, starting in the 1940’s and going all the way through Tonkin Gulf in 1964.

Look into the nature of things.

I’ll let you know in another year or two–when the book is done– what my search dredges up from the streets and battlefields of our g-generation’s  search to find meaning and fulfillment, and maybe even a little justice and mercy thrown in.

But one thing I want to say, now, to THEM THAT WENT:

Although things did not turn out the way we had intended, there isn’t much in this life that actually does end up like we thought it would.

You went and did what the USA asked, or compelled you, to do, while many of us were trying to pull you back to stateside.

Thank you for your service. We’ll need many more of your stripe before its all over with.

Glass half-Full

Listen: Boomer’s Choice

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Robert McNamara’s Tragic Choice

August 27, 2015

My freshman year of college at LSU was a real eye-opener. The world I entered that September was remarkably different from the high school existence from which I had just graduated.

There was a lot going on in 1969. I understood practically none of it, so my college education would be a huge learning experience–not only about the subjects of classic university study, but about the tumultuous times that we lived in then.

If you have, in your life, spent a freshman year at a large university, then perhaps you know something about the changes I was dealing with. But if you were a baby boomer like me whose collegial initiations happened in the late 1960’s, then you might agree that our experience then was even more intense that most college frosh would typically experience.

Nowadays, in my 64th year of life, I have undertaken to write a novel that is centered around this experience. The book, which will be a fourth novelic publishing project, is called King of Soul.

Who is the King of Soul, you may ask. You’ll have to read the book to find out. But of course you cannot read it, until I finish writing the dam thing, probably about 3 years from now.

Now when I’m doing this sort of project, I’m heavy on the research. The direction of my research will determine much of what happens in the story. For the last six months or so, I’ve been reading many books and articles about the 1960s. My historical novels are subjective explorations of selected time periods. The three previous novelic projects were propelled by research explorations in these years: 2005 (Glass half-Full), 2000 (Glass Chimera) and 1937 (Smoke).

1969 was, as Frank Sinatra might say, a very good year. On the other hand, in some ways it was a very bad year.

Just like any year, I guess. Depends on who you are, where you are, and what is happening around you.

What I found was happening around me and the other college students of 1969 was this: a helluva lot of change, and it was going down at a very fast clip. Most of the change revolved around three areas of societal ferment: civil rights, the Vietnam War, and sex.

I wandered, like millions of other high-school graduates, into a maelstrom of disruptive events and ideas.

My current enquiry about that anarchic decade has identified three main influences:

~the civil rights movement, which had started long before, but was accelerating in its intensity during that time

~the Vietnam War, and the draft

~the metamorphosis of the 1950’s “beats” into something new called the hippies

My first great discovery has been that the groundbreaking civil rights activists of the 1950s-60s taught the antiwar activists of the late 1960s how to mobilize and organize in order to get things done. The “Freedom Summer” of 1964 is the clearest expression of this development. That’s when bunches of white kids from up north spent their summer going down south to help blacks in their struggle for civil rights, and America was never the same after that.

My second great revelation is (as if we didn’t already know) the elephant in that era’s living room: the war in Vietnam.

This may seem obvious to anyone who was there, in the USA at that time. But God, and my advancing age, have taught me a great lesson in recent years. And the lesson is this:

One of life’s greatest satisfactions is to, by study, delve back into the time in which you were growing up, and learn about what the hell was going on then when you were so young and clueless about it all.

Toward that end, I am reading a great work of jouralism now, one of the best I’ve ever picked up: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Brightest-David-Halberstam/dp/0449908704

Today I encountered in that book a startling realization. You can perhaps discern what it is by reading this selection from page 242 of the 1972 Ballantine paperback edition:

“. . .in making his (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s) arguments against nuclear weapons, forcefully, relentlessly, he had to make counterarguments for conventional forces. We had to have some kind of armed might, so he made good and effective arguments for conventional weapons (and if the Chiefs wanted to use them in Vietnam, to send American combat troops without nuclear weapons, he had to go along, since he had developed the thesis, the mystique of what conventional weapons could do with the new mobility). He gave them a rationale, for his overriding concern was quickly to limit the possibilities of nuclear war, to gain control of those weapons.(emphasis mine).”

In other words, the slippery slope of  conventional warfare in Vietnam war escalation came about as an effort to prevent ultimate nuclear war with the Communists!

That’s something to think about. Who knows, maybe the strategy worked. Maybe it will help us understand how that war slid, over the course of a dozen years or so, from a few military advisors deployed in 1961 to 54,000 Americans dead by the time we finally got out of there in 1975.

There was, admit it or not, a rationale to the tragedy of Vietnam.

As we (still) face a 21st century situation of potential nuclear disaster, maybe the strategy of conventional war–a lesser evil– can fend off the worst possible bellicosity–nuclear war against the “Communists” of our present age, the Islamic State of Iran, or North Korea.

Our detonation of atom bombs over Japan in August 1945 has changed the world–and the world’s strategic inevitable realities–forever. We’d best not forget that. For the preservation of human life on this planet, any bellicose nations who strive to develop nuclear warheads must be kept in check.

 

Smoke