Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009

>> Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When I was in college, I majored in History and minored in Asian Studies out of a desire to try to understand what happened in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, perhaps out of a larger desire to understand the problem of Evil. I suppose in retrospect, then, that my undergraduate education can be considered in many ways a fundamental failure, yet another passionate young leftist trying to grapple with the insoluble problems of the cosmic and eventually ending up in law school. (The alternative, obviously, was to go on and get a PhD. in something, and end up teaching somewhere, and just as the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so too it's greener in the alternate-history parallel universe, unless it's the one where the Nazis won WWII. That one just sucks all the way around, man.)

I mention that bit of increasingly-faded history merely because I've found myself undecided about whether or how to write about the recent death of Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary Of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson who's considered the "architect" of the Vietnam War as if the Vietnam War wasn't the product of politics global and domestic and indigenous. My wrist hurts and my brain is too foggy, and ultimately McNamara's ghosts are foggy and shrouded. It's not a simple thing to write about. Robert McNamara is exactly what all his critics said he was and he got a bad rap he didn't deserve, and there's an irreconcilable contradiction. He wasn't what his critics said he was, is the thing, and he deserved hell for all the bad decisions he made one-after-the-other; and there we are, back at the contradiction we started with.

It was fashionable, a few years ago, to compare McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, which was understandable when you look at them as technocrats who thought a war could be won by numbers, but completely unjustified when you remember that McNamara was smart and had a conscience, and that really isn't to slam Rumsfeld as much as it sounds: McNamara was the italicized kind of smart, and one might still concede Rumsfeld was an ordinary kind of smart while granting that McNamara was, by all accounts, the kind of smart that can be intimidating, kind of frightening. And maybe Rumsfeld even has a conscience, I don't know, but I know that there are a lot of accounts that McNamara wept over what he'd wrought, not just the soldiers' lives that had been expended on policies he helped craft but over what those policies have done to this country and its politics over the years, and I haven't heard of Rumsfeld crying any tears. I think I said in a comment I left at Jim Wright's blog some distant time ago that McNamara seems like the kind of guy that if a Vietnam vet had slugged him, he would have responded by saying he deserved it; McNamara accepted responsibility, maybe even when he shouldn't have--John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could have said "no" at any time (sort of; except they couldn't, not really, dammit, see... and I said it was complicated, and I didn't want to get into it, so forgive me, I won't).

This was supposed to be a short post pointing you to a Salon piece by Michael Lind that I actually think is very, very good. And that's what you should be reading. It answers as many important questions as my college education did, but it also makes some good points, just like my college education did. I hope you'll find it as perceptive as I did.


Carol Elaine Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 5:41:00 PM EDT  

I know precious little about the man, but I think I'll be Netflixing Fog of War soon.

Too bad his death is still being lost in the Jackson hoopla. I think the news networks would be far more interesting if they delved into MacNamara's life than MJ.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 7:02:00 PM EDT  

If you missed it Monday, I strongly recommend listening to Fresh Air (with Terri Gross!)

She replays an interview with him, as well as an interview with the man who made "The Fog of War"

What stood out most to me, was his comment that if the US had lost WWII, he would have--and should have--been prosecuted for war crimes for the bombings in Japan.

ntsc Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 8:17:00 AM EDT  

I wouldn'g go out of my way to p-ss on his grave. US Army 1968-1971

Eric Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 3:53:00 PM EDT  

NTSC: I understand where you're coming from. Whatever ambivalance I have over McNamara comes in part from the belief, based on what he said in his later years, that McNamara would have understood where you were coming from, too.

ntsc Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 4:27:00 PM EDT  

In Korea Truman and, I think, Forrestal had a goal, one which was accomplished. Less than that of McArthur, but a realistic one.

In Iraq I, likewise there was a goal which was quickly accomplished.

In Iraq II, the goal was the fantasy of a terrified puppet, but it was real if unforgivable in his mind - or what there was of one.

In Vietnam, which I never came closer than the Paris Peace talks, I never knew of a goal at the time. I was a junior NCO, but I regualarily sat in on the intelligence briefings of the US CO's intelligence maven (he needed a bridge player who could type with a very high clearance). He didn't know why we were there or what we were trying to do. He though we did in 62, but by 70 there was nothing left. This was a Vice Admiral.

Don't waste your war, he wasted mine.

Corwin Reborn Friday, July 10, 2009 at 11:42:00 AM EDT  

McNamara was a controlling hawk that will be remembered for his bad decisions, and like Rumsfeld, a shortsighted inability to accept anything other than his own opinion until after it was too late. Rumsfeld, however, was naive in his hawkishness. I truly think he just didn't care what happened, as long as the "war" was won.

that being said. he was a VERY smart man. one quite that stuck with me in the documentary that was made about 5 years ago was (and i might be slightly off, but you'll get the gist...)...

"every general makes mistakes. that's what happens. hopefully you learn from them. your mistakes could cost lives of 10, 100, or thousands of lives... but they are mistakes we can come back from that don't destroy nations. Except for the [nuclear] bomb. With those, we onluy get one chance to make a mistake, and with that, we wipe out nations."

this was a half-hearted defense, i think, of the high cost of the Vietnam war. I'm not defending him, but from his perspective, he honestly thought that to lost Vietnam would escalate to nuclear confrontation and that was not acceptable. at least, that's my understanding.

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