As secretary of defense under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert McNamara prosecuted the Vietnam War on a day-to-day basis, just as Donald Rumsfeld orchestrated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for George W. Bush. The details may appear strikingly different — a Communist threat in the jungle as opposed to an Islamist menace in the desert — but the rotten policy core has a painful consistency: miscalculation fortified by rampant arrogance.
McNamara's death on Monday at age 93 should serve as a prompt, a trigger, for President Barack Obama and his foreign-policy team. It presents an unspoken invitation to consider the common denominators of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.
Analogizing people is tricky business, as is drawing parallels between unpopular wars. But in terms of serving their respective presidents, Rumsfeld was an instigator; McNamara an enabler.
This sort of distinction matters to historians and journalists and government officials; it is of little use to the public, and is of no matter to the soldiers, sailors, aviators, and Marines who died under the commands of W. and LBJ.
McNamara famously developed doubts about Vietnam by 1967, but failed to act on them. This failure imbued McNamara's post-Vietnam regret with a tinge of Shakespearean angst: Caliban playing the warlord, muttering to an imaginary council as the tempest raged.
Team Obama take note.
Even a flamboyant imagination would strain to concoct circumstances under which Rumsfeld might express second thoughts about anything — let alone Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, Mac and Rummy suffered a similar fate: both were cashiered by their masters when the military magic failed to work.
Today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being fought inside a bubble — unlike Vietnam, which had the immediacy of an open wound. Our all-volunteer military insulates society from the pain and anxiety that a force of draftees distributes with seemingly random cruelty.
Taxpayers have gotten an even more carefree ride. For the first time in national history, the United States is waging war entirely on borrowed money. No tax increases to pay for the military adventures of the thankfully departed Bush.
This serially overlooked fact has yet to register with the public, afflicted as it is with attention deficit disorder and preoccupied with consuming its way out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Iraq and Afghanistan, however, are now President Obama's wars. Bush (like LBJ before him) may have gotten the nation into the mess, but Obama (like President Richard Nixon) was elected to get us out.
From the introduction of military advisers by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 until the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam escalated and raged for 14 years before its ignominious end. An estimated 58,000 Americans died in the process, with more than 303,000 suffering wounds.
What Obama needs to realize is that more than 21,000 of those deaths — nearly 38 percent — took place after the nation more or less concluded that Vietnam was a quagmire and tapped Nixon to fix the problem.
Although the pain suffered by military families today is no less intense, the carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq is considerably smaller: 5000-plus dead to date, 34,000-plus wounded.
Each death, every wound, is now recorded in Obama's ledger.
At the moment, there is a huge disconnect between what the military command is doing and what the public perceives. Obama, in effect, has adopted the Pentagon's "long war" view that sees substantial numbers of troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
Because troops have recently withdrawn from Iraqi cities into more discrete American encampments, there is the illusion of a war that is winding down. It is not.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan is escalating, as evidenced by the daily death toll.
Modern war seems to break more presidents than it ennobles. If Obama is to avoid the fates of Johnson, Nixon, and Bush II, he must reconnect with political reality and bring the troops home.
If he doesn't, he risks McNamara-like ignominy.