Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert S. McNamara

It is hard to begin writing about the death of Robert S. McNamara. Over twenty years ago I asked, in a letter printed in the Boston Globe: "So what accountability will there be? Those like McNamara, who cynically pursued a cause they knew to be doomed and wrong, are responsible for crimes of biblical proportions. What shall be their punishment? ... How can he continue living after all he has done?"

Although I am not in any sense religious, I felt at the time that the only possible response that McNamara could have taken would be to "fall on his sword": take his own life as a symbolic expiation for his collossal errors -- both intentional and unintentional -- that led to the deaths of perhaps a million or more people. In fact, McNamara, while conceding his guilt, did far less. Obituaries that have appeared recently describe his supposed "do-gooder" tenure at the World Bank as his penance: offering many loans to developing countries. Of course, the World Bank has long been known as an arm of US capital interests, and an agent of Western economic policies. He certainly didn't oversee the giving away of money to countries damaged by these policies.

So the years passed, with McNamara slowly fading from our memory. There was Errol Morris' Academy Award winning documentary "The Fog of War" which gave him a chance to philosophize about Vietnam. I refuse to watch this. I have read a lot about McNamara -- both during and after the war. The movie can not change the facts about what he did, and I don't care to witness any more of his weeping -- literal or figurative. I'm not impressed that Morris "likes" him -- I guess McNamara's a real sympathetic charmer. But just remember what he did.

There was no real "fog". Experts wrote thousands of pieces about the myths of involvement in Vietnam. I remember reading, in the early '60s, Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture recounting French mistakes in Indo-China. A huge amount of expert criticism was available (even from the CIA in 1963 I recall) to dispell any "fog" surrounding the early commitments and mistakes. This commentary turned out to be uniformly correct and McNamara's analysis uniformly wrong -- even by his own later admission. The French including the very anti-communist Charles de Gaulle -- the original colonialists in Southeast Asia -- immediately realized the misunderstandings underlying U.S. policy. But McNamara ignored it all. Any fog was the result of the secrecy of the administrations that employed him and those like him. Things like the Tonkin Gulf "incident", "Body counts", "light at the end of the tunnel", "winning hearts and minds", "strategic hamlets" etc. were mists manufactured on the ground, not some sort of mystical fog rolling in from somewhere offshore.

Just because one is smart -- high IQ, good memory and a gift for quick analysis -- doesn't necessarily make one arrogant or give one power. In McNamara, unfortunately, one found that fatal combination. But that wasn't the worst. After he arrogantly ignored the many warnings of those who knew better, and persisted with his war under two presidents, he found out that it was all terribly wrong. But what did he do? Nothing. During the deaths and maimings and grief; through many elections in which anti-war candidates were accused of being un-American and protestors were beaten, jailed and even shot, McNamara did nothing ... nothing.

Then he started his semi-private weeping. Poor man.

If you want to know my feelings about Robert Strange McNamara, listen to Dylan's song "Masters of War", especially the last stanza:

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead.

Too bad it didn't come sooner, when it might have mattered -- for him and for us.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering when and if you were going to write a post on McNamara. We agree on a lot of this; my main comment is that I don't know if Errol Morris "likes" McNamara or not. The movie largely consists of McNamara talking, interspersed with historical footage and taped conversations among Vietnam planners. If you want to like him, I suppose you can find things to like, but I didn't find him sympathetic at all.

    Errol Morris was on the NewsHour the other night, and his analysis more or less agrees with yours -- after research and making the film, he doesn't think that McNamara was the driving force in escalating the war, as many have alleged, but that he went along with it for years, and then remained silent for years, out of some sense of loyalty and patriotism. Morris said, "This is a different story, but not necessarily a better one."