James Fallows said the following in 1995 when Robert McNamara wrote his memoir expressing his regrets about the Vietnam War:
In the cycles of life, the desire to square accounts is natural, but Robert McNamara has forfeited his right to do so in public. You missed your chance, Mr. Secretary. It would have been better to go out silently, if you could not find the courage to speak when it would have done your country any good.
And today Fallows adds:
My tone then was harsher than I would be now. Perhaps that’s just because I’m older; perhaps because McNamara has now died; perhaps because he had fifteen more years to be involved in worthy causes, mainly containing the risk of nuclear war or accident. But mainly I think it is because of Errol Morris’ remarkable 2003 film The Fog of War, which portrayed McNamara as a combative and hyper-competitive man (in his 80s, he was still pointing out that he had been top of his elementary-school class) but as a person of moral seriousness who agonized not just about Vietnam but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II, which he had helped plans as a young defense analyst.
I think that there’s another reason for Fallows to leaven his tone, which is that it was not too late for McNamara to help his country. Had the Bush administration taken McNamara’s memoir to heart, the war in Iraq could have been avoided. Had President Obama done so, maybe we would be taking a different course in Afghanistan. Rarely does a week go by where we don’t hear about unarmed drones blowing up dozens of Afghans or Pakistanis. We are still failing to take the lessons McNamara learned too late to heart. But because he did eventually talk about the mistakes he made, we do have the opportunity to learn.
I understand completely why New York Times columnist Bob Herbert feels that McNamara’s mistakes were unforgivable, but as recent history cruelly reminds us, it still isn’t too late for McNamara to make a difference.
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