The Real Mad Men of History

From The Washington Post (h/t Marilyn Young):

“It’s a childish story that keeps repeating in the West,” smiled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with the BBC last week. He was dismissing allegations that his regime is attacking Syrian civilians with barrel bombs, crude devices packed with fuel and shrapnel that inflict brutal, indiscriminate damage.

“I haven’t heard of the army using barrels, or maybe, cooking pots,” Assad said, and then repeated when pressed again: “They’re called bombs. We have bombs, missiles and bullets. There [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.”

If you think Assad doth protest too much, you’re probably right.

The Post not only cites evidence supporting the claim of the Syrian regime’s “frequent use of barrel bombs in densely packed urban areas” but also cites other instances of regimes using barrel bombs, including the US in Vietnam.

But I was more struck by the civilizational machismo of Assad’s claim that “we have bombs, missiles and bullets. There [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.”

Like so many of the West’s defenders of just war, restrained war, and humanitarian war, Assad takes great—albeit unearned—pride in his precision weaponry. Implicit is a contempt for those pathetic, perhaps even feminized, warriors (the “cooking pot” reference), who would rely on such primitive crudities as barrel bombs.

As the Post explains, the US has its own history with such methods:

Look a bit further into the past, and you’ll find that barrel bombs were featured in an American military campaign, too.

A smart post on the War Is Boring blog details when the United States dropped barrels packed with fuel in an attempt to burn foliage in the dense forests of Vietnam and smoke out Viet Cong guerrillas:

Army crews kicked the incendiary drums out of Chinook helicopters onto suspected enemy camps. They strapped white phosphorus smoke grenades to the cylinders to set them alight.

The Air Force took the concept one step further and tried to start raging forest fires in Viet Cong base areas. The flying branch used fire barrels as well as normal incendiary bombs.

In April 1968, the United States carried out “Operation Inferno,” in which 14 C-130 cargo planes dropped dozens of 55-gallon incendiary barrels filled with fuel over southern Vietnam’s U Minh forest. The sorties sparked raging fires, but they had limited effect, as they all tended to die down once the fuel burned out. The United States also dropped barrels full of a chemical equivalent of tear gas, aimed at flushing insurgent fighters out of their bunkered hideaways.

But throughout the war, you had figures like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy (though McNamara left the Johnson Administration in February 1968 and Bundy in 1966), stressing the reason and rationality, the precision and pride, of the American war effort. And, not infrequently, wrapping it all up in a bow of unrestrained masculinity.

Assad, McNamara, Bundy: these are the real Mad Men of history.



  1. lazycat1984 February 16, 2015 at 12:39 pm | #

    Assad, Brzezinsky, Bundy, McNamara, and I’m sorry to say – Eichmann too- the guy wasn’t sent from Mordor or something- they’re all just dominator types. God, Bog, Zeus, The Market, or Rational Deduction has spoken to them and chosen them to rule us, guide our thoughts and shape our miserable meat into something less noxious in the sight of their lofty vision. I think Terence McKenna was right. We’re half angel and half killer ape and only a healthy dose of psychedelics can ameliorate our propensity to automatically hand over our minds to the nearest bullyboy. Or girl.

  2. Roqeuntin February 16, 2015 at 2:50 pm | #

    On the subject of McNamara, I’d wager you’re familiar with The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary where he is interviewed. He has at least a degree of guilt and regret during that interview. Probably not enough, but you can tell he at least understands something was wrong. Morris tried to do it again with Rumsfield in “The Unknown Know,” only with Rumsfield there was no sense of guilt. The latter was painful to watch as a result. People say Rumsfield got the better of Morris in that interview, and I suppose that’s one way to look at it and you’d probably right. However, I think Morris’ biggest mistake was assuming there would be some kind of shared ethics, whatever it was that allowed him to talk that way with McNamara. But it wasn’t there, Rumsfield defended Iraq all the way as the rational, informed thing to do. There was only disdain and the sentiment that anyone who opposed Iraq was ignorant or did so only of a refusal to face facts. It’s the same logic that nullifies anger about 2008 because the general population doesn’t understand the intricacies of CDOs and credit default swaps.

    “The Unknown Known” was a lot more depressing. What does it say about our current era when even someone like McNamara looks like a good man by comparison?

    • s. wallerstein February 16, 2015 at 4:27 pm | #


      You mentioned Roberto Bolaño’s book, Distant Star, a few days ago and your comment interested me. I got the book out of the public library, have read most of it and I find it well worthwhile reading. Thank you.

  3. Roqeuntin February 17, 2015 at 12:45 am | #

    I’m flattered and glad you liked it.

  4. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 17, 2015 at 11:56 am | #

    Check this out:

    On “The Fog Of War” and McNamara’s alleged sense of regret over his role in the American War in Vietnam.

    My choice for a pull-quote would be this: “A [sic] displayed by Morris, McNamara never offers any reflection on the social system that produced and promoted him, a perfectly nice, well- spoken war criminal.”

    Or, this: “If Morris had done a decent job, McNamara would not dare to appear in any public place.”

    • Roqeuntin February 17, 2015 at 10:35 pm | #

      I ask you this: have you actually seen it? Or did you just read a polemic on Counterpunch and consider that to be close enough? I get the impression that’s what happened. Maybe you don’t want to humanize McNamara, because it makes him easier to hate and that suits your worldview better. If that’s your prerogative, fair enough, just don’t expect me to take you seriously.

      I’ve never been fond of Counterpunch. The essays are shrill and they flog the same dead horse topics day in and day out. Every once in a while there’s a solid essay or two. I really dig Linh Dinh and his photo blog Postcards From The End of America, for example. In short, you aren’t going to score a whole lot of points with me linking them and I certainly don’t take everything written there to be gospel truth.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 18, 2015 at 11:29 am | #

        Yes, I have seen it. Twice. On Netflix. The thing I do like most about Morris is his use of Philip Glass’s music (I am a fan of Glass, whose work a local high school teacher described as “psycho-acoustic”; I used that guy to music/sound edit my use of Glass in a movie of my own).

        I think “The Thin Blue Line” is the best of the films of his that I have seen. I also saw that one about the Holocaust denier who works on lethal injection machines and went to Auschwitz to try to get evidence that gassings attributed to that facility did not take place. It was intriguing but not a good as it should have been, exactly because of what it did not do: indict the beliefs of the principal character, but only showed him as an “interesting” figure. I was disappointed by that movie.

        “Blue Line”, on the other hand, indicts — that is why it remains a masterpiece of investigative-journalistic documentary filmmaking. “Fog” does not indict — and it should have, because history has the goods on McNamara.

        Now we have HULU, but I am less than thrilled by their choices. Netflix is beginning to look good again.

        • Roquentin February 18, 2015 at 1:34 pm | #

          Fair enough, I stand corrected. I’d agree Thin Blue Line is probably his best. He ended up getting the guy who was wrongly convicted for murder exonerated. It’s hard to argue with that. I saw it years ago, but what I remember the most about it was this sense that it was shockingly easy to rig a case in this country, even moreso in places like Texas where the “hang ’em high” vision of justice never really went away.

          McNamara wasn’t a good man. I meant that strictly relative to Rumsfielf, in that McNamara seemed to at least possess some semblance of a conscience. Vietnam was an entirely avoidable and utterly senseless loss of human life on all sides. I was very upset to learn that Ho Chi Minh had initially been shocked we sided with the French and had seen the struggle against colonialism in very similar terms to the America Revolution. He was right, we were basically taking on the role of the British in 1776 in Vietnam….with similar results.

          That’s the real tragedy. All that death and destruction for nothing….for no good reason at all. It’s hard to forgive or accept remorse from anyone for that.

          • s. wallerstein February 18, 2015 at 2:41 pm | #

            I’m sure that it doesn’t matter much to the Vietnamese victims of U.S. aggression, but one difference between McNamara and his gang vs. Rumsfield and his gang is that the whole Bush 2 mob was so obviously motivated by personal greed, by the desire to get their hands (and the hands of their friends) on Iraqi oil, while as far as I know, McNamara and his mob were motivated by geopolitical strategy, not by the desire to enrich themselves directly. As I said above, that doesn’t matter to a Vietnamese peasant whose family got napalmed, but most of us have a tendency, perhaps mistaken, to rate “impersonal” motives as higher than greed.

    • LFC February 27, 2015 at 7:02 pm | #

      Anyone who has seen Fog of War and does not think McNamara had some remorse over, especially, his role in WW2 (the firebombing of Tokyo, etc.) would seem to have trouble with the English language.

      • “Remorse”?!

        A) WHAT “remorse”?

        B) Who gives a crap about McNamara’s alleged “remorse”?!

        What some of us DO care about is his CRIMINAL GUILT, his “remorse” not withf@ckingstanding.

        Robert McNamara was one of the planners of the then greatest foreign policy disaster in American history, costing millions of lives and billions of dollars. This war crime was sold to the American public by the deployment of a flat-out lie, commonly referred to as “The Gulf Of Tonkin Incident”. There a journalists now that have been pushing the New York Times to issue a retraction of that lie that that august institution helped in telling the public on its own pages. That project should be spread to the rest of the corporate press.

        Because of him and others in his position, not only is the U.S. government guilty of the very crimes it has prosecuted Nazis for — such as genocide — it has also gouged (another) permanent wound of political division in the U.S. and bled resources away from needed programs in this country.


        Personally, I am NOT interested in his “remorse” — I am interested in the fact that his actions did not meet with the kind of response that could have blocked all of our government’s subsequent acts of international force and violence against the world’s peoples whose only crime was to defy American hegemony.

        “Remorse” and “regret” are fine and dandy. Unfortunately, crimes against humanity are stopped by “remorse”; they are stopped by punishing the malefactors. We can read their memoirs when they write them from their prisons. We can send our documentarians to interview them through their bars.

        Bluntly, we are in the Middle East (yes, I said “are” and not “were”) because our leadership has learned zero from our war in Vietnam. How could they when the worst they could fear is the prospect of “remorse” long after they have retired?

  5. Edward February 17, 2015 at 1:00 pm | #

    There is another real life mad man, Edward Landsdale, who was a pioneer in the advertising industry before he was recruited for very sinister ps-ops missions in Vietnam. His group would commit heinous massacres and then try afterwards to blame the atrocities on the Viet Cong. After Vietnam he went on to practice his dark arts in South America.

  6. Edward February 17, 2015 at 1:14 pm | #

    I guess my reaction to this is that the West seems to like to distinguish between good and bad forms of killing. If someone we don’t like can be accused of a bad form of killing (Putin, Saddam, Quadafi, Assad) then they can be demonized. This is what went on with Iraq during the 1990’s. “Saddam Hussein killed his own people with chemical weapons!” As if other forms of killing were O.K. or the U.S. were not guilty of its own massacres in Iraq. In Syrian, the U.S. has been blocking a diplomatic solution and fueling the war with weapons. That war may have been started by mercenaries.

  7. gayunicorn February 18, 2015 at 3:30 am | #

    “And, not infrequently, wrapping it all up in a bow of unrestrained masculinity.”

    Awesome, you’ve managed to mix war, geopolitics, major ideological and historical events with tumblriffic whining about cis-heteronormativity, or whatever the hell ignorant teenagers are bellyaching over these days. Maybe if Kissinger had just castrated himself and found his feminine chakra or whatever, all the worlds problems would go away.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 18, 2015 at 8:33 am | #

      Maybe if Kissinger, McNamara, Assad, Cheney/Bush, Suharto, Sharon, Abacha et. al, had been brought up on war crimes and human rights violations, many of the world’s current problems would have had less of a chance of taking place. Short of that, I am open to them all being castrated.

      With rusted instruments and without anesthesia. At the hands of their surviving victims.

      On live television.

    • jonnybutter February 18, 2015 at 7:27 pm | #

      Awesome, ‘gayunicorn’, the way you ignored the point of the OP and used it as an excuse to whine (vaguely) about what you wanted to whine about. Darned ignorant teenagers and their bellyaching! My advice is to just ignore them. Everything’s under control.

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