David H. Hackworth
April 18, 1995


Robert S. McNamara's memoirs have flashed back painful memories for 2.6 million Americans who served in Vietnam and tens of millions who became war victims because they protested the war, dodged the draft or lost loved ones.

All of us -- those who followed duty, conscience or otherwise got in the way of a bad war -- still bear the scars and live with the guilt from what we did or didn't do during that decade long blood bath.

"This is the book I planned never to write," explains McNamara of "In Retrospect" (Times Books, $27.50). Hugh Lipscomb, a veteran who now lives in San Diego and was blinded in the war, says, "He should have kept his mouth shut. For McNamara to come out at this late date and say he's sorry is a slap in the face to all who fought there."

Jerry Sullivan, from Shade, Ohio, spent three years in hospitals recovering from wounds. He also cuts McNamara no slack. He says, "McNamara is licking his wounds in public. Vietnam was hard on his family. His son developed an ulcer, so strong was his opposition to the war. Let me refer you to 'The Wall,' Mr. Secretary."

Had McNamara stood tall in 1967, over 40,000 soldiers whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would be alive today. John Howett from Harrisburg, Pa, served with Special Forces. He says, "A wise old man once jokingly told me, 'The most important thing to know in your life is where you're going to die -- then stay the hell away from that place!' McNamara knew the answer to that question for an awful lot of young men...but he told them almost 30 years too late."

"McNamara now admits he was wrong and regrets we got stuck in Vietnam," says Bud Bresciani, a Ranger from New York City who was permanently disabled. "Back then, the brass blamed the warriors -- me and the guy over there behind the tree -- for blowing it."

My beef is not just with McNamara, but with the generals who marched the Brescianis into the grinder. None cared about the human wreckage. They were into body count, medals and sliming up the ladder.

The troops stuck in that quagmire, like Lipscomb, Sullivan, Howett and Bresciani, knew the truth, but no one listened.

When I returned from my first Vietnam tour in 1966, I told Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson we were losing. I gave his successor, William C. Westmoreland, the same message in 1968, and finally, in 1971, after five tours there, I blew the whistle from Vietnam and told the world on prime-time TV.

Did Johnson or Westmoreland do anything? No. They continued to feed the death machine with American youth. To the brass, war means not only glory, but bigger budgets, more divisions, a time to show your stuff and win your spurs. Not one general or admiral publicly laid their stars on the table and resigned. It was the only war they had and, good or bad, they exploited it.

Most knew Westmoreland's "big battle" strategy was wrongheaded, but not one -- all of whom were well-schooled in the principles of war -- stood tall and said defeat was inevitable with a flawed strategy and no game plan. They knew that it was impossible to bomb and shell the Viet Cong into submission, but all went-along-to-get-along. They closed ranks on the truth, and collectively joined Westmoreland in chanting: "There's light at the end of the tunnel," while a generation of young men were ground up in the jungles using conventional tactics against an unconventional opponent.

McNamara put loyalty to his President above a higher loyalty to his country; he clearly failed in his duty. At least now he's finally found the guts to take the blame.

Not so Westmoreland. He continues to push his revised reality as relentlessly as he hid the truth during the war. He blames the press, the politicians and the people for not supporting a holocaust, while droning, "We won all the battles, but lost the war."

This is a lie, but the war was a big lie from the very first shot. McNamara has at last delivered the truth and accepted the consequences.