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COLUMNIST: Appliance Army marches for McNamara

The Appliance Army downstairs, which is led by General Electric the Washing Machine, took a break from close-order drill practice. It is quite a sight, let me assure you, to see dehumidifiers, water heaters, washers and dryers, furnaces, air conditioners-- all practicing shoulder arms with M-16's and full battle gear, especially considering that, even though they all have to use various forms of tubing for arms, they get pretty good.

What's going on, I asked General Electric? They were just coming back in from the front yard. An unusual parade, although I've gotten pretty used to it.

"I can't talk much now, Mr. President," he said to me. He insists on calling me Mr. President. I've given up on talking him out of it. He insists that, since I'm the civilian to whom he reports, I must be the president.

Why can't you talk much now, I asked him?

He tipped back his helmet, wiped his console forehead with a bath towel he was handed by Col. Madame Lady Kenmore, and said: "We're having a memorial service for Mr. McNamara, who, as you and the rest of the world know, has just passed on to the big battlefield in the sky."

Sure I know who he is, I said to General Electric. What I didn't say was that I considered him as nothing special, just one more of JFK's cadre of sixties intellectual nincompoops who got us--and me--into Vietnam.

McNamara did have some accomplishments to his favor, much as I hate to admit it. While he was head of the Ford Motor Company, he was the driving force behind the Ford Falcon, which, if one considers the timing, was ahead of everyone else with an economy car by 20 years, a remarkable achievement in the auto industry, which hasn't been ahead of anything in their entire history.

Sure, Edsel Ford took a run at being ahead of everyone, after Robert McNamara left, but we all know how that one turned out.

McNamara insisted that the country didn't want all that chrome and steel and horsepower; that they instead wanted a small, plain, easily repaired and economical to operate vehicle. Give the guy credit. When his abilities to organize toward a goal actually were for something besides war, he was the best.

Folks agree that maybe he was the best at organizing a war, too, which was why we became so mired in Vietnam, despite JFK's reservations about the whole mess. Were it not for JFK's assassination, it is fully conceivable that we would have been able to hold our involvement with the whole domino theory of communism down to a manageable level. As it was, we got Lyndon Johnson, who, because of his lack of East Coast Ivy League education, thought McNamara's meant he was smarter than Johnson.

Which just goes to show Johnson really wasn't very smart, although for far different reasons over far different things.

Robert McNamara's chief failure, regarding how Vietnam came out, was in not realizing that he no longer had working for him his "whiz kids," which were people who could feed him correctly analyzed data regarding various projects they were all involved in. He got fed data, alright, only this time it all came from American officers, who, as career oriented individuals, quickly learned that no promotions came to if if you were delivering bad news about losing.

So we were winning, even if we had to fudge the KIA's a little bit. And the politics out in the villages. And the numbers of Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese Army soldiers. And the Saigon leadership efficacy.

In fact, they even fudged the entire domino theory, which turned out to be nonexistent.

So, I said to General Electric, what kind of memorial service are you going to have? I didn't say anything more, although it seemed to me that, had I been Robert McNamara, I would have asked to have been buried in a Falcon automobile.

"We're thinking about reading off the names of all the one-star generals that got promoted to two-stars, all the two-stars that got promoted to threes, and the four-stars who got to be theater commanders of the war in Vietnam." General Electric was getting excited, because, from his point of view, that war was the last great promotion movement in the U.S. Army. Nowadays, it takes a miracle or a West Point ticket to get from captain to Major.

"Boy," said General Electric, who missed the Vietnam promotion parade by just a couple of years, "those were the best of times. I sure wish I'd have been there."

Uh huh, I told him. It sure sounds great.

What I didn't tell him was how I really felt about those officers. If you upset General Electric the Washing Machine, the next thing you know, all your trousers are tied into knots. He gets really, really vindictive if you upset him. Like those other generals.

I heard a six-gun salute a little later out north of the house. Some years ago, after the Appliance Army decimated a flying vee of geese headed south for the winter, I substituted blanks for their live brass. They thought they were being attacked by aircraft. Or so they said.

They can't see very well.

McNamara didn't see very well, either, not until it was way too late.