McNamara's Morons

From my mailbox

Claire Berlinski

I almost began by writing, “My friend Alan Potkin, whom I met in Laos,” but then I remembered that he and I have never met. I left Laos in 1995, just before he arrived; he wrote to me after I’d left. He was a fan of the infamous Vientiane Times parody that everyone in Vientiane believed I’d written, but which, alas, I didn’t. Somehow, after years of dilatory correspondence, I’ve merged his name into my memories of Vientiane, to the point that I now think of him as “my friend from Laos.”

Alan’s a Mekong river conservationist, based now at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. This is the kind of work he does. He’s also a combat veteran of the Second Indochina War.

“You wouldn’t recognize the erstwhile lovely sleepy charming Vientiane,” he wrote to me not long ago, “now that it’s become Sinicized. Not in a good way.”

I can’t bear to imagine.

Alan’s gone Trump, alas—it happens to the people you’d least expect it—but we’re still friends.

I have to say that your relentless Trump derangement syndrome is getting a little much for me, and your rabid distaste for the so-called “far-right populism” strain in American politics is also ill-considered, IMHO. Orange Man Bad is not an autocrat nor a budding Mussolini. Like his counterpart in in the Ukraine, he’s a comedian by sensibility (although less Jewish—although actually maybe not so—than Mr. Volodymyr Zelensky).

A great deal of the enthusiasm for Trump is borne of loathing of the left. I understand that. But I don’t think the Pax Americana is a price worth paying to express it.

He disagrees with my premise:

… It sure as hell doesn’t feel like that was fifty years ago. I think we could have pulled another South Korea out of that mess if the lefty bien pensants hadn’t cut the ARVNs off at the knees (my daughter-in-law is Vietnamese and her father was a political prisoner for nearly decade). The constituency for Pax Americana is gone, baby, gone.

The point of this isn’t to debate Trump. It’s just to share an e-mail he sent me recently, one that made me think, “This shouldn’t disappear into our great collective memory hole.”


RIP CPT Morton Singer

The text below is from his e-mail.

“This is a suboptimal quality screen capture (using the Camtasia 2018 app) of my annual presentation on 26th November to the Crossroads intro course to SE Asian history and culture, at Northern Illinois University. 

“As far as I know, I’m the only affiliated scholar here who actually served as a combat soldier at the height of the Vietnam War (1968-69), and I’m preparing a new eBook much more narrowly focused than usual on the December 17, 1968, crash of a C-123 transport plane just taking off from Chu Lai, Vietnam. Only nine of the 45 crew and passengers aboard survived. One of the fatalities was CPT Morton Singer, a rare Jewish chaplain whom I had met just a month earlier, and who is extremely influential even now on my life choices. 

“With absolute certainty, the crash happened because the plane’s fuel tanks had just been incorrectly refilled with JP4 jet fuel, rather than the 115-145 octane aviation gasoline that was clearly specified on the aircraft exterior, near the filler port. It was almost unimaginable that the driver of the fuel truck could be so incompetent and irresponsible! 

“However, in just the last several years it has become more widely known that as result of decisions secretly taken by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and US President Lyndon Johnson, more than 300,000 prospective draftees whose dismal scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test were far below the previous acceptable threshold for serving in the US military were enlisted or conscripted.

“This decision was entirely politically motivated, as the alternatives were to eliminate the 2-S student deferment or to mobilize, for overseas service, troops in National Guard and reserve units who were exempted, thereby from risking getting their heads blown off in what was an extremely unpopular war.

“Amazingly, I was in extensive phone and email contact with two of the contributors to this new, narrowly-focused project in the several days before I made this presentation (which was altogether unscripted, worsened by ill-considered microphone positioning). 

Too late to talk directly with Hamilton Gregory

“Also, I slightly confused recounting the stories of several of the key personages. One of them—the freaked out crash truck first-responder Tracy Diffin II—had just died in March 2019. Neither of the other recent connections had ever heard of the “McNamara’s Moron’s” debacle and were appalled to conclude, as indeed I was myself, that the direct cause of the C123 disaster was probably—then, as now, unproven—the appalling and deeply cynical Armed Forces Qualifying Test ploy.

“CPT Singer was only 29 years old at the time of his death.”


He adds a note:

I’d encourage you also to look through our main website, most of which is in a highly unorthodox, PDF-heavy, idiosyncratic format. Regrettably, Apple updated their Safari browser last year so it no longer runs PDFs in their original format.

If you want to get the extensive content to open and run in full accordance with our authoring style, on the Mac platform, you absolutely need to use the Firefox browser. On Windows 10 PCs, Firefox also works, but so does IE v.11, if you can find it buried somewhere deep in your OS. IE v.11 is cleaner and more intuitive. Other Web browsers won’t take you further than the homepages of the individual component eBooks.

Other important instructions for Firefox: In the “preferences” pages —rather counter-intuitively—interactive PDFs won’t open interactively under Adobe/Acrobat Reader. You’ll have to use “Preview in Firefox”, and also make sure that under “Tabs” all three boxes are left unchecked. To get the stitched cylindrical virtual reality panoramas to open and run correctly, download a recent free installer for Adobe Flash.


Claire’s note: It’s not quite true that McNamara never admitted to failing at anything. But I understand why many found this inadequate.

I also understand why to many, the term “Pax Americana” seems a hideous irony. As in many cases, it has been.

It hasn’t been overall been an irony, however. This is a hard case to make, in light of the horrors of American foreign policy mistakes and wars. These seem far more vivid—they are easier to count and name—than the wars that haven’t happened, the lives that haven’t been lost. The wars are easier to prove.

That doesn’t mean the peace, however, isn’t real.

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