Thursday, July 09, 2009

Robert McNamara, 1916-2009

It is, I suppose, a testament to the impact Robert McNamara had during his tenure as Secretary of Defense between 1961-68 that his death has not been eclipsed, like almost every other story in the last week’s news cycle, by that of Michael Jackson.

Indeed, there has been a significant amount of discussion about McNamara’s legacy, with a lot less forgiveness for his failings than one tends to see in eulogies for major figures. His death has opened a lot of old wounds. It has served in part as a reminder to the post-Vietnam generations of just how traumatizing that conflict was. While some commentators have offered McNamara’s later-in-life contrition for his mistakes as a mitigating element—contrasting his honesty and willingness to admit error with the bloody-mindedness of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz troika—at least as many have said there can be no forgiveness for the primary architect of the Vietnam War.

For me, as for many of those who have written about McNamara this past week, the irreducible sticking-point, the element that no amount of contrition can efface, is not that he admitted he was entirely wrong about Vietnam. It’s that he admitted he knew he was wrong about Vietnam as early as 1964—that he looked at the war and realized it could never be won the way it was being fought. And he then proceeded to be silent as the conflict deepened and tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died.

Nor was this a man given to timidity or who blushed in the face of authority. If there is any aspect of his legacy that could serve to balance Vietnam, it was that he stared down the Joint Chiefs during Kennedy’s presidency. He arrived in his office at the Pentagon in 1961 and found himself faced with perhaps the most hawkish American military command in history, and who were, we now know, seriously considering a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, and who tried to use the Cuban missile crisis to manipulate the Kennedy Administration into war.

That someone with the stones to stare down the Joint Chiefs would keep silent about what he recognized as a futile and useless war is baffling, and ultimately that is what is unforgivable.

I’ve been reading Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco, which is about the buildup to the war in Iraq and the series of mistakes, blunders, misapprehensions, and sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the civilian leadership and some parts of the military that led to, well, the fiasco that Iraq for the most part has been. Reading what has been written about McNamara and the legacy of Vietnam, it is discouraging to see the same sort of mistakes made, in many cases willfully so. McNamara, one of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” is an example for history of how sometimes the brightest aren’t always the best.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Welcome back...