Monday, July 13, 2009

And So It Goes

The death of Robert McNamara last week generated a great deal of comment. McNamara was reviled as the architect of the Vietnam War. He was reviled when he wrote thirty years later that "we were wrong, terribly wrong;" and he was reviled by many, even in death. It was a strange fate for a man who became one of Henry Ford's "whiz kids."

"It's impossible to mention his name without starting an argument," Errol Morris wrote in The New York Times. But Morris -- whose Oscar winning film, The Fog of War, gave McNamara a platform to defend his actions -- was not without sympathy. "During his tenure as secretary of defense, there were conflicts that could have escalated into nuclear war -- the confrontation over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis. All of this must be seen against the backdrop of the prevailing ideas of the time, the domino theory and the cold war."

McNamara consistently maintained that his prime objective was to avoid nuclear Armageddon -- and he knew that dodging it in Cuba was more luck than strategy. If fighting a conventional proxy war was a substitute for nuclear Holocaust, it was -- in McNamara's words -- a case of "doing evil to do good."

But it was precisely that twisted formulation which was his undoing. A brilliant technocrat, he could marshall a phalanx of figures to justify his policies. The problem was that men and women could not be reduced to a series of complicated equations. In the end, McNamara concluded, the most grievous error he and the other New Frontiersmen made was to not know one's enemy -- to not "empathize with him." It was the same piece of wisdom Atticus Finch gave his seven year old daughter Scout in Harper Lee's superb novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was this failure, rather than any of his accomplishments -- even the avoidance of nuclear holocaust -- which followed McNamara around until the end of his life. "By then," wrote Tim Weiner in The Times, "he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington -- stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind -- walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand yard stare."

McNamara was not the cold, heartless automaton of my youth. He was a man -- like George Bush Sr. -- given to weeping in public. His colleagues, especially Lyndon Johnson, took it as a sign that he had gone soft. Most of the public took the position that -- even if they were tears of remorse -- they were too late. And so it goes. Too often we recognize our follies too late.

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