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Weekly Commentary — Robert McNamara

2009 July 13
by rahul

Robert McNamara slipped away peacefully last week, leaving life with none of the turmoil he brought to the lives of so many others. Even at the end, a nation that could forgive the criminal Richard Nixon and the obtuse Gerald Ford couldn’t quite do the same for the deeply reflective McNamara. Perhaps it was because of his reputation for icy logic, perhaps because of his habit of crying in public. More likely, it was because, instead of stonewalling history and morality, he actually expressed doubts and regrets about his past actions – such sins as he committed should not be compounded by repentance.

And yet I shed no tear for him.

He was among the last of a now dead breed of public servant: men of great integrity and exquisite morality whose rectitude remained unharmed through all the death and destruction they brought to other nations, who entered public service with no thought for public aggrandizement and maintained that selflessness as they enjoyed the multifarious perquisites of power in America.

Yeah, I really disliked him.

Actually, unlike me, a few of his critics, even those who remained unmoved by the publication of In Retrospect, his memoir of his involvement in Vietnam War policy, did finally forgive him for his mea culpa in Errol Morris’ much-acclaimed film, The Fog of War.

After all, how often does one hear such a thing from a government official who has not been committing sexual peccadilloes or embezzling money? When Richard Clarke began his public testimony before the 9/11 Commission with an apology for failing in his duty to help prevent the attacks, for most of the political class his words just didn’t compute. How could the concept of apology even apply?

How remarkable, then, that McNamara apologized for his role in the butchery of 3 million or more Vietnamese, when for so many years the country’s stance has been that the only ones who should apologize for it are the Vietnamese who so heartlessly rent our society and the protesters who were so indecorous in their outcries against injustice.

Except, of course, that he didn’t.

I watched Errol Morris’s fascinating and inexplicable film a few years ago and came away annoyed in equal parts at McNamara and at Morris. Why would a liberal filmmaker interviewing a man so intimately involved with the atrocity that was the Vietnam War structure his film as a serious of ethical and practical pronouncements from on high, with the war criminal as the guru on the mountaintop and the rest of us as the earnest seekers for his wisdom?

The way that McNamara so blithely and naturally fell into the role as if it was what God had intended for him all along says all you need to know about his supposed repentance.

But it’s also all there in black and white in his book, In Retrospect, right on the first page of the preface. The reason he finally came forward in 1995, so long after his words could have made a difference? He had “grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.”

To translate: he wrote the book to combat one of the key components of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” – the collapse of the unthinking tendency to believe our political leaders were men of great integrity and ability and that our institutions were designed for the best in this best of all possible worlds. I hold no brief for rampant cynicism, but surely it is better than the unthinking conformity of McNamara’s salad days, for which he had such great nostalgia?

The most remarkable and revealing thing of all is that he thought that his description of his thoughts and actions at several crucial junctures in the war would work against this cynicism, perhaps that his example would inspire other future public servants.

In his memoirs, you will see many references to “mistakes” he made, none to crimes he was involved in committing. He waxes eloquent about his support for civil rights and his desperate fears that “someone would be hurt” when racist southern whites attacked Freedom Riders; the idea that people would be hurt by the decisions he and his colleagues so bloodlessly made about Vietnam do no enter into it.

The most striking moment in Fog of War is when McNamara, aghast at the horror of it, says to a Vietnamese counterpart more or less “We killed three or four million of you. How could you make us do that? How can you go to sleep at night with that on your conscience?”

He went to his death, I am sure, blaming an intransigent world for its refusal to accept his grand moral vision.

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