Registering the Registry 2019: The Fog of War (2003)

  • McNamara’s early progress reports during the years leading to the CIA-backed coup against South Vietnamese President and brutal ant-Buddhist dictator Ngô Đình Diệm were frequently based on false or heavily doctored intel indicating the war with the North Vietnamese forces was proceeding far better than in reality, a façade which only served to goad the notoriously prideful McNamara into digging his boots in the ground and investing a great degree of personal and national pride in the conflict proceeding as he wanted. Following the United States’ 1964 entry in on-the-ground fighting, McNamara’s reports to the public and occasionally top brass continued to indicate the war was going well and would prove easily winnable in short order, a trend he kept running until his 1968 resignation from the post.
  • Being as McNamara valued statistics and hard data above all else, he and those below him formulated and advanced daily kill counts as a reliable metric for measuring progress in Vietnam. As one might imagine, raw body counts do very little to inform one of territory control or impact on the citizenry, and indeed tend to result in soldiers and commanders artificially inflating their counts by outright lying or killing non-combatants to receive their incentivized bonuses for doing well on a regular basis. Again, this policy continued throughout his entire tenure as Defense Secretary, and on through the remainder of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
  • Drawing on his experiences with firebombing Japan and the effectiveness of destroying Japanese transportation and storage infrastructure, McNamara’s strategy for aerial warfare in Vietnam involved constant, heavy bombings of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong transit routes. As he would come to realize over the course of the war, the underdeveloped nature of the nation and the opposing forces’ penchant for moving men and supplies through rough or densely foliaged terrain meant the bombings did almost nothing to stymy effective movement. Instead, all they accomplished was the needless death of countless civilians, and a strengthening of Vietnamese morale against American invaders. This policy he DID attempt to reverse towards the end of his tenure, except…
  • As McNamara was perceived as a civilian unjustly elevated to a position of power over trained military men (despite his service record), and as his habits of consolidating military programs and going against tradition in the name of efficiency chaffed the established army culture hard, McNamara never proved particularly effective when it came to wielding soft power with regards to Vietnam. During the Missile Crisis, yes, thank God, but his advocacy for anti-guerilla, anti-insurgency training and tactics fell on completely deaf ears for years on end, which resulted in the infamously ineffective platoon-based search-and-destroy operations that turned the conflict into an inescapable quagmire for years. This same tendency to alienate those from whom he needed close cooperation also prevented a halt to the bombing campaigns, because the men responsible for such decisions regarded the Defense Secretary as a lily-livered coward with no stomach for real war.
  • Perhaps most inexcusably, McNamara met President Johnson’s demand for more infantrymen by lowering the physical and IQ standards for entrance into the military, in a move officially named Project 100,000, but commonly derided as McNamara’s Morons. In spite of the cruel nickname, the program largely drew on men from economically disadvantaged areas (read: largely black men) whose education left them ill-equipped to do well on a typical IQ test, alongside many others who were legitimately physically, mentally, or emotionally unfit for active combat. With many also unfit for technical or officer-level positions, Project 100,000 soldiers were funneled into the infantry more often than not, and posted a casualty rate three times higher than the average soldier over the course of the war. It is not remotely an original observation, but the image of fellow Registry inductee Forrest Gump sent to die for a cause he does not and cannot understand isn’t too far from reality in many cases.



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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: