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.