American leaders don’t easily learn lessons from the past. Before choosing war in Iraq, the Bush leadership might profitably have consulted former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam or seen Fog of War, the carefully made Errol Morris documentary featuring the former Kennedy Administration Whiz Kid. In his own words McNamara “put before the American people why their government and its leaders behaved as they did and what we may learn from their experience.”
To free himself from three decades of accumulated guilt and simultaneously flail and defend himself, McNamara offers the inside story from the man who ran the Vietnam War under the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies (1961-68). Both his horror of war itself and the response of the anti-war movement motivated this former Harvard genius and Ford Motor Company CEO to speak out. But the negative reaction to the Vietnam War, more than the war itself, pushed McNamara to let the outsiders have a peek at the elite decision-making world.
“I have grown sick at heart,” he wrote, “witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.”
McNamara's film and literary memoir, I fear, may only increase that cynicism and contempt. I wonder how parents of dead soldiers or civilians, Vietnamese, American and Iraqi, as that scenario rings with repetition, feel when they read that as early as 1966 McNamara had become “increasingly skeptical of our ability to achieve our political objectives in Vietnam through military means.” Nevertheless, he continues, “this did not diminish my involvement in the shaping of Vietnam policy.”
At age 85, McNamara gropes for the elusive coherence that can offer a graceful endgame. I recall him in 1965 examining body counts on TV, as if they comprised the essence of his daily business report as Ford CEO. In TV appearances he explained why the President’s decision to send more US troops to Vietnam signaled impending victory. During this time, he now admits, he knew the war was both wrong and un-winnable. But not until his 1995 visit to Vietnam, he now avers, did he understand that the Vietnamese fought their war for independence, not as part of the Cold War scheme.
This revelation offers insight into McNamara's moral learning disability, that ethical gap that allowed him to order missions of death without questioning his own integrity. He told the public as he dispatched young men to kill and be killed that he saw “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Vietnam was “McNamara's War” as much as Iraq is Rumsfeld’s. But thanks to the movie, we know that McNamara has a strong emotional side unlike Rummy, whose distorted haiku speech and irritable manner create the image of a thick-skinned executive.
When Norman Morrison burned himself to death in 1965 to protest the war outside of McNamara’s Pentagon office window, as Buddhist monks had done in Vietnam, McNamara “reacted to the horror of his action by bottling up my emotions and avoided talking about them with anyone, even my family. I knew Marg and our three children shared many of Morrison's feelings about the war, as did the wives and children of several of my cabinet colleagues. And I believed I shared some of these thoughts. There was much that Marg and I and the children should have talked about, yet at moments like this I often turn inward instead — it is a grave weakness.”
McNamara sensed that his soul was at stake, but the glimmers of humane feelings that he allowed himself to acknowledge confronted a stronger, deeper commitment to servicing power, an obligation that vitiated his ability to see right and wrong.
McNamara continued to support the Vietnam War in public because his loyalty to the President demanded it. Indeed, he interpreted his constitutional oath to include obedience to Presidential dictates.
He also owed the President his business assessment: the Vietnam War was unprofitable. Ironically, McNamara used this formula to arrive at his moral judgment: unprofitable means wrong. The brilliant accountant and business visionary, however, could not demarcate clear moral lines between his logic of figures and life and death.
In Fog of War, he notes that US fire bombing Japanese cities and dropping two nuclear bombs over civilian targets might fall under the category of war crimes. He sermonizes about the seeming inability of humans to stop making wars. Yet, for all of his lesson-teaching in the film and book about the barbarism of war, McNamara reluctantly admires the clarity of men like General Curtis Lemay, the US Air Force Chief of Staff (1961-65).
LeMay, by his own words, was a psychopathic killer, a man eager to use nuclear weapons against Cuba and the Soviet Union in the 1962 missile crisis, a commander who didn’t hesitate to risk the lives of his own pilots during World War II by having them fly at lower altitudes thus exposing themselves to anti-aircraft and fighter attack in order to increase their accuracy.
LeMay had no moral dilemmas. War meant killing the enemy and losing as many of your own as you had to lose. Period! The more complicated McNamara had to choose: power versus conscience. In the film he took the Defense Secretary job because it would benefit his family. And he defends that decision, even though his wife got sick and his kids became estranged from him. Not until the end of the Cold War did he find it convenient — and maybe necessary — to save his soul. He maintains, however, a gray line between mistakes and sins, a kind of moral fuzziness that doesn’t quite coincide with atonement or soul saving.
McNamara presents himself as a moral man. Among his axioms of faith was the assumption that the United States undertook overseas actions only for noble purposes. Through this obfuscating lens, he could not and cannot — see himself as an imperialist. Since he served the elected president of a democracy, how could he possibly make imperial policies?
Because of this epistemological failing, he could not understand that Vietnamese nationalists had been fighting for independence from China and then France for centuries. So this often brutally self-critical man remains in his political thinking an unacknowledged imperialist.
I’m glad he wrote the book and appeared in the film. His personal testimony dramatizes the deceit of the past and should make those in the present generation very skeptical about all Bush claims about Iraq.
But one must proceed with caution about the lessons McNamara teaches. He has sinned and seeks atonement. That is good. But the depth of his evil eludes him. By not acknowledging that the United States intervened for non-democratic motives to try to defeat a legitimate nationalist force in Vietnam, he falls short of achieving a platform for atonement.
Indeed, he still maintains that “the United States of America fought in Vietnam for eight years for what it believed to be good and honest reasons — to protect our security, prevent the spread of totalitarian communism, and promote individual freedom and political democracy.”
Such clichés ring so hollow in the face of 3.4 million dead Vietnamese and more than 58,000 dead Americans. The stubborn McNamara still maintains that those who launched the war had nothing but venerable aims as do the defenders of the Iraq War and occupation.
McNamara might write a guide book on: The Morality of Power: an Oxymoron? He simply blurred distinctions between intentions and poor war strategy. As Defense Secretary for seven years he simply ignored the incongruities between Washington’s trite expression of noble goals and the bestiality in Vietnam required to achieve them. He pressed on, as he admits “ravaging a beautiful country and sending young Americans to their death year after year, because they [the war planners] had no other plan.”
The war could have and should have been halted, McNamara concedes, but he and fellow Johnson senior advisers failed to do so “through ignorance, inattention, flawed thinking, political expediency, and lack of courage.”
Yes, lack of courage! Top government officials apply a logic of intervention that insulates them, places a wall between questions they should ask and answer before ordering bombing missions against cities — in Vietnam or Iraq.
In his modified mea culpa, his presumably last public thrust, McNamara attempts to both expiate guilt and teach lessons. Have President Bush and his advisers learned from these memoirs? The unscrupulous continue to counsel the amoral Crown. The Secretary of State lacks the courage to demand the King change his erroneous course. Like McNamara, Colin Powell plays the obedient servant to power. Recall that Cyrus Vance resigned and set an example for integrity because he understood that President Carter’s hare-brained rescue mission in Iran could lead to truly devastating consequences.
In his book, McNamara strives for grace, citing T.S. Eliot's “Four Quartets: And last the rending pain of reenactment/ Of all that you have done and been; the shame/ Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/ Of things ill done and done to others harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue.”
The repentant but still strangely arrogant McNamara might better have used Goethe’s words from Faust. “The worm am I, that in the dust does creep.”