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Tag: Robert McNamara

James Fallows on Robert McNamara

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.

Revisiting Robert McNamara

Back in 2005, I posted my initial reaction to Fog of War:

The film was particularly powerful for me personally because McNamara’s basic approach to life is similar to my own. McNamara is an empiricist whose approach to problem solving is to collect and break down the data to come to a rational decision. The lesson of McNamara’s life is that doing your best to gather the facts and act rationally can’t prevent you from making the most horrible kinds of mistakes.

Dime store hypocrisy

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.

The Fog of War

Today, I watched Fog of War, the Oscar-award winning documentary from Errol Morris featuring former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. For a bio of McNamara, see his Wikipedia article.

I thought Fog of War was perhaps the most astounding documentary I’ve ever seen. Many people who were against the Vietnam War didn’t like the documentary for what it wasn’t. I enjoyed it for what it was — a look at how decisions are made and the limits of human beings in making them.

The film was particularly powerful for me personally because McNamara’s basic approach to life is similar to my own. McNamara is an empiricist whose approach to problem solving is to collect and break down the data to come to a rational decision. The lesson of McNamara’s life is that doing your best to gather the facts and act rationally can’t prevent you from making the most horrible kinds of mistakes.

You can’t watch this movie today and think about the war in Iraq and how we got there. As I watched this movie, I felt like I was watching a primer on dealing with responsibility that was aimed at George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and their cohorts. If I had to choose a documentary for people to watch in this day and age, I’d point them at this one over Fahrenheit 9/11 every time. I think it has a lot more to teach us about war, its causes, and its consequences.

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