Robert McNamara just died. He is most famous for serving as Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and LBJ and serving as architect of the Vietnam War. He was also President of Ford, President of the World Bank, and in the end was the subject of the Errol Morris documentary Fog of War. I don’t really want to write about McNamara, though. The New York Times obituary I linked to is outstanding, read it.
What I do want to write about is the comments on a qualified expression of sympathy for McNamara by Kevin Drum. I’m revolted by the sanctimony expressed by the commenters. It’s ironic that the value McNamara came to appreciate most late in life — empathy — is found to be so sorely lacking in his critics.
What I’ve come to realize is that in many ways, decisions are decisions. We criticize politicians for lack of transparency, but in our own behavior we fail to be as transparent as we should be. We condemn people for failure to recognize mistakes and change their behavior, but I’ve certainly been known to stick with a bad plan due to a lack of courage to speak the truth and suffer the consequences. The main difference between people like Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld and most of the rest of us is that we lack the authority to err on such a colossal scale. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t call out their errors or their moral failings. People who take on such responsibility should be held to a high standard, and more importantly, examining the mistakes of the past may in some rare circumstances prevent other people from making the same mistakes in the future.
What sticks in my craw, though, is that so many people feel that they are incapable of making such mistakes. Or that having made mistakes, they are not required to atone in the ways they demand from public figures. It strikes me that most of the people who are fastest to condemn would be better served by being grateful that the stakes of their own decisions are far smaller.
July 7, 2009 at 12:49 pm
July 7, 2009 at 2:04 pm
July 7, 2009 at 2:44 pm
Yes and no. I know what you’re saying, but the “mistakes” in question ultimately cost millions of people their lives. That level of mistake is one that many other American leaders have managed to avoid in similar positions of power. So to wave them off as understandable is ignoring the fact that previous and subsequent leaders managed not to make them.
Now McNamara worked hard after Vietnam to atone for that, and that is something to applaud in a world where most people go to their grave defending their bad decisions, but you can’t undo actions
I haven’t seen Fog of War, though I ordered it (meant to see it before, but forgot about it). But you might check out the discussion of the Tonkin Gulf incident in Bamford’s “Body of Secrets”, and Ellsberg’s “Secrets”. The picture they paint of top American officials deliberately lying to the public is one just as damning as the lead-up to the Iraq War was. Could you forgive Cheney & Bush for lying about WMDs & deliberately deceiving the American people about a purported connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda? I would have a hard time, because I remember just how mendacious those lies were. The lies leading to the Vietnam War seem to have been as bad, or worse. So I can’t blame people for saying that what McNamara was involved with was unforgivable.
Deception is much worse than well-intentioned mistakes. Now McNamara may have felt that deception was required, so perhaps that is just one more mistake; but that is the unforgivable one, to me. When decisions are made in public and in good faith, the people participate in making them, and bear some shared responsibility for the consequences if mistakes are made. When decisions are made in secret and the public are deceived, the good faith of the people is perverted and the responsibility for the consequences of mistakes falls much more heavily on the deceiving party. Fundamentally, in a system where the government feels justified in lying to the public, you are no longer living in a democracy.
July 7, 2009 at 2:49 pm
I agree with all that. And I didn’t have a problem with Bob Herbert’s strongly worded column on McNamara, either. I guess I’m just exhausted by umbrage. I’d always rather ask what leads someone like Robert McNamara to make the decisions he did than repeatedly denounce him. I don’t think the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication is forgivable, any more than the WMD-related lies that lead to the invasion of Iraq were. Political leaders demanded a pretense to start a war, and they got what they asked for.
July 7, 2009 at 3:25 pm
I get what you’re saying about exhaustion with umbrage, but despite how tiresome it is, I think we need to hear a lot more of it, until everyone is sick to death of hearing it and has completely internalized the idea that the US Government – both Democratic and Republican administrations – can and will lie to the American people about the intentions, pretext, actions, costs, and damage of a war in order to produce support that would not exist if they were fully-informed. That needs to be conventional wisdom, as unquestioned as the idea that the rights of citizens need to be protected from the government, and for the same reasons: people in positions of power will sometimes abuse that power.
And clearly that lesson is not learned, the Iraq War proved it. So we need to keep hearing it until it is something that people simply take for granted, until the general reaction to attempts to take America to war is deep, deep skepticism. (Which is what it used to be; as I once read, the worst thing about WWII was that we genuinely were the good guys, because it instilled a heroic warrior attitude that was not dented by previous and subsequent unheroic wars.)
July 7, 2009 at 3:43 pm
It’s interesting, McNamara before the end expressed regret for his decisions (which I would agree is cold comfort to the senselessly dead victims of the wars he facilitated) but also explained how we get into the situations that we would both agree should be avoided at any cost.
As far as I’m concerned, war is the worst outcome to any situation. We should do almost anything to avoid a war. In fact, I am universally opposed to escalation of any kind, in personal relationships or relationships between countries. I go about with the assumption that it never pays to escalate.
And yet even though that seems sensible to me, we still see the United States making exactly the same kinds of mistakes that McNamara made. Clearly the extreme condemnation from the anti-war movement did little to help people resist exactly the same category of errors that led us to disaster in Vietnam.
We had Bush start a war of choice, and we have Obama escalating our involvement in Afghanistan. In Robert McNamara we had a man who made exactly the same sorts of bad decisions and was reflective enough to admit and analyze those mistakes.
If we can’t stop yelling at him for the horrific mistakes that he made, it’s hard to learn the lessons we can from his thinking about those mistakes. It makes me sad to look at people who ostensibly share my aims (preventing the needless loss of human life) spend so much energy demanding satisfaction from McNamara when they could be working to figure out how to recruit more people to resist war as their first instinct.
July 7, 2009 at 4:54 pm
To me Churchill said it best:
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” – Sir Winston Churchill