In the United States, a nation wedded to the proposition that military might guarantees security, the members of each successive generation face this challenge: Will they demonstrate greater or lesser wisdom than their predecessors in deciding where young Americans should next fight?
Leaders of the so-called Greatest Generation failed the test. We can fix the date of that failure: It occurred just about 50 years ago, in September 1966, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that the Vietnam War was unwinnable — and then acquiesced in its further escalation.
Arguably the brightest of all the "Best and Brightest," McNamara could not muster the courage to confront what his own analysis revealed — that in Vietnam he and the presidents he served had given birth to a doomed enterprise. Instead, McNamara sustained the pretense of believing in a cause that he privately concluded was irretrievable. So the war continued, killing tens of thousands of Americans along with far greater numbers of Asians before culminating in a humiliating U.S. defeat.
How ironic then that the best and brightest of the baby boomers have in their own way replicated the missteps of their predecessors. When the World War II generation presided over the Pentagon, the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson plunged heedlessly into what became a monumental quagmire. The boomer-dominated administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have effectively collaborated in producing a similar result.
Although comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, widely separated in time and space, are inexact, they are telling. Back in the 1960s, members of the policy elite to which McNamara belonged persuaded themselves that the preservation of South Vietnam ranked as a categorical imperative. To keep that country afloat and prevent Southeast Asia from slipping out of Washington's orbit, the United States embarked upon what many soon dubbed McNamara's War.
By the beginning of the 1990s, members of the policy elite were obsessing over Iraq much as their predecessors in the 1960s had obsessed over Vietnam. As in the 1960s, unexamined assumptions abounded. So too did exaggerated fears. As had been the case during the 1960s, policymakers knew remarkably little about the country on which they were fixated. Once again, the issue at hand went beyond the fate of a single troublesome country. Ostensibly at stake was America's primacy in the Persian Gulf.
As in Southeast Asia back in the 1960s, so too in the Persian Gulf since the 1990s: Efforts to prop up U.S. hegemony yielded instead upheaval and instability. McNamara's War all but destroyed the country it was meant to save, while also engulfing neighbors such as Cambodia and Laos. The results achieved by what today might be called Carter's War — for Ashton Carter, the eighth Defense secretary of the baby-boomer political ascendency to preside over U.S. military operations in Iraq — are no less abysmal.
The sequence of sanctions, bombing, invasion, occupation, counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency and yet more bombing, intended to bring Iraq into compliance with American dictates, has succeeded chiefly in shattering that country. The collateral damage caused by U.S. military actions during the past quarter-century under the auspices of baby boomer elites certainly equals the havoc wreaked by McNamara and his confreres and extends across an even wider territory.
Yet these parallel stories of military malpractice are by no means identical. Among the differences, one in particular stands out. In the 1960s, angry Americans, led by baby boomers, rose up in protest. Demanding accountability, many fingered McNamara as the very embodiment of Vietnam-era strategic myopia and moral indifference. Even today, among those who fought in that war and those who opposed it, he remains a reviled figure. Haunted by Vietnam, McNamara himself belatedly conceded the point, expressing remorse for his misjudgments while in office.
Today accountability and remorse are in short supply. Whatever capacity the public once possessed to rouse itself when faced with a military enterprise gone awry has apparently dissipated. With the normalization of war, Americans have learned to tune out events occurring on distant battlefields. Public malaise frees Congress of any obligation to exercise serious oversight. Why ask difficult questions when rote expressions of supporting the troops suffice to win votes?
As for the policy elite, in its ranks strategic myopia and moral indifference flourish. As with McNamara in his heyday, the conviction persists that military might will ultimately put things right, even as actual events contradict such expectations on a daily basis.
It's not that first-order questions go unanswered. They are not even asked, even in a presidential election year. For this, Americans have no one to blame but themselves.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is "America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History."