Friday, February 02, 2007


Three years ago I ate lunch with Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. An old man used to being the smartest guy in the room, Mr. McNamara was at Williams College to explain why he and other policy makers took America to war in Vietnam.

After a dessert of blueberries and vanilla ice cream, we walked over to the lecture hall, where Mr. McNamara delivered a speech to a full house, then opened the floor to questions.

An upper classman rose and asked for the microphone.

"How does it feel," he asked, "to be one of the biggest murderers of the 20th century?"

The hall went silent.

The old man considered.

"Well," he began.

"I don't think I am. I made mistakes. That's why I'm standing here today. But in light of how we understood the world at the time, I did the best I could. So did everyone else. We were wrong about a lot of things, with tragic results. But I don't feel that I'm a murderer."


After a few more questions, Mr. McNamara excused himself. The crowd filed out onto the quad. I raced across campus to meet a friend from Vermont who was coming to visit with his father. I was running late.

They were waiting in the parking lot, my friend leaning against the bumper of an aging blue Subaru. His Dad, an obese Vietnam war veteran with sad eyes and a long white beard, drank coffee in the driver’s seat with the engine running.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said as we shook hands. “I was at a talk with Robert McNamara.”

“McNamara,” my friend said. “Don’t let my Dad hear that name. He would go right over to the lecture hall and rip that bastard’s head off.


I sympathize with my friend’s father, who served as an army medic in Vietnam. But I also believe that Mr. McNamara deserves great respect for devoting the last years of his life to examining the conduct of America at War.

In a recent documentary called "The Fog of War" the former Defense Secretary admits that he and his associates could have been charged with war crimes for acts such as the widespread use of napalm in Southeast Asia, or the fire bombing of Japanese cities.

I admire Mr. McNamara for his courage. He is a profoundly decent man. It is refreshing to hear a senior American official admit to mistakes.

But 'refreshing' does not do much for the millions - millions - of Asian men, woman and children who died - and who continue to suffer and die - as a direct result of 'mistakes' on the part of American power brokers. Especially when the same men continue to occupy high places in Washington right at this very moment.

Last month a former head of state, Saddam Hussein, was executed after a deeply flawed war crimes trial sponsored by the American government. Last year, Slobodan Milosevic died before justice could be served at the Hague. Soon, the last few surviving members of the Khmer Rouge elite will stand before judges in Phnom Penh.

War crimes. Violations of basic human morality as expressed by international agreements governing the conduct of war.

Accountability. To be held responsible for the consequences of one’s actions.

Do the trials of frail old men who fought on the losing side of wars actually accomplish anything?

Are such trials a waste of time and money for a country like Cambodia, where people desperately need help with the problems of today?

Sometimes I wonder.

But at the same time, I believe that when the world bears witness to mass murder, it is crucial for humanity to stand together, draw a line in the sand and say:

"This conduct is unacceptable and will be punished.”

The United States hasn't ratified international war crimes treaties because officials fear that fellow Americans might be prosecuted. These fears are justified.

I’m writing from Cambodia. When my father was my age, President Nixon and his advisors bombed hell out of this neutral nation of rice farmers, killing thousands and creating the conditions that gave rise to the insane Khmer Rouge genocide. Their secret bombing of Cambodia was illegal and their callous disregard for Cambodian lives was criminal.

President Nixon is dead, but some of his most influential advisors, notably Dr. Henry Kissinger, are still alive. In fact, Kissinger is a frequent visitor to the White House, where he has the ear of our hapless President.

America's reputation is, understandably, in tatters. Our national arrogance has ignited and inflamed conflicts around the world and left us beholden to a rising China. Our President and his advisors continue to pour gasoline on the fire, acting as if they are above the law.

What America needs is a dose of accountability and a long look in the mirror. What the Western world needs is renewed faith in the rule of law and international cooperation. What Cambodia needs, among many other things, is dignity.

The United States should join the rest of the world in supporting the International Criminal Court. Henry Kissinger should stand trial for war crimes. George W. Bush should start to think about consequences.

(To learn more about the impact of American policies in Cambodia read William Shawcross' excellent study "Sideshow" or check out the award winning movie "The Killing Fields")

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Blogger Travis said...

so true, so true.... in every war the winner dictates the terms of what is too much... perpetual war for perpetual peace; americas lasting stamp for the past 60+ years.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous big brother said...

travis, come work for minipax.

4:36 PM  

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