July 07, 2009
Strange Was His Middle Name

Much will no doubt be made of the fact that his middle name really was Strange, Robert Strange McNamara. But it fits him so well; it’s one of those odd coincidences that get historians lathered up.

robert-mcnamara-in-vietnam.jpgI hope everyone who hasn’t seen Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara takes this event as a prod. (BitTorrent seems to have a lot of activity on that title right now). Errol Morris did history a great service with this effort.

Most people worldwide who’ve heard of McNamara know him as a war criminal, as Michael Tomasky describes him, and that’s certainly accurate. You never know how many people are lost in a war; but the Guardian estimates that over two million Vietnamese died, in addition to 58,000 Americans, not counting innumerable others who were maimed, orphaned, pauperized, and traumatized.

That’s what winning a war means to America, since, as Chomsky says, we won that war. We taught the world that if you disobey us your economy will be devastated, your countryside napalmed, and your farmland planted with antipersonnel bombs, and it will take you decades to recover. The problem for us is that Vietnam has taught the world that you can recover, and you can be independent of the big powers. That, in a nutshell, fucking with the US has a cost but it’s finite.

I think RSM understood this, at least later in life. Interestingly, he didn’t seem to question the idea that he had a great deal of responsibility for the events that created the war of the US against Vietnam — widely referred to as The Vietnam War, but from what I hear the Vietnamese call it The American War, to distinguish it from others Japanese, Chinese, French, and so on that preceded it.

robert-mcnamara-lt-col2.jpgBut McNamara was more than an architect of war. He was perhaps a vicious manager, but he seems to have gotten results by being straightforward, which is always gonna piss people off. During the Second World War he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel through the appropriate combination of teaching and statistics, which, applied to the logistics of bomber campaigns, had immediate if devastating results. The Guardian obit is excellent in listing interesting and salient points from his career, it being easier to criticize the whole US adventure in Vietnam from the jaded former-imperial viewpoint of the British.

JFK offered him a choice of cabinet posts, and he took Defense. Kennedy had run to the right of Nixon on foreign policy questions, especially anti-communism, in the 1960 elections. Questions were asked about whether there might actually be a dangerous gap in the number of ballistic missiles between the mighty and efficient Soviet Menace and the small but wiry Forces of Freedom. So McNamara’s whiz kids set to work checking the details, and the results weren’t pretty:

…it soon became evident that the new cabinet officer had much to learn about politics.

One of Kennedy’s major campaign issues had been America’s supposed “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. McNamara, once confirmed by the Senate, conducted an urgent inquiry into how this gap could be closed. At his first press conference he was asked about his findings and responded briskly that the gap was really heavily in America’s favour. The Republicans went crazy, some even demanding that the election be rerun.

You gotta hand it to the Republicans, they never back off the crazy thing. One day that strategy’s gonna work for ’em, it’s due.

What makes McNamara interesting is that he wasn’t your standard-issue semi-evolved war-mongering profiteering scumbag. In fact, as Morris’s movie makes obvious, he was extremely intelligent, to the point that it actually got in his way (ask H.R. McMaster). He was relatively honest, especially as compared to, say, Rumsfeld and his exploits in the Tamiflu market.

At least McNamara was too smart to get caught if he was doing such things, and personally I doubt he was. I think he really believed he was doing the right thing all along, and that’s what makes Morris’s documentary so powerful. RSM can’t bring himself to acknowledge that a couple million people died in large part because of bad decisions he made. But he can show that he understands the decisions, why they were bad, that he made them, and that they had the results they had.

I take him to be saying in the movie that we’re all partly culpable. That our system leads to situations where intelligent people who are honorable and decent normally are forced into positions where they have to make decisions that end up killing millions for no good reason. I’m not at all convinced by his reasoning; he seems to me to proceed from some faulty assumptions on that argument.

Still, McNamara was not Kissinger. He seems to have felt genuine remorse about the people who died, and to hope that better decisions might be made in the future. One can see his participation in the Morris movie as his attempt to leave some recompense behind. In the film he doesn’t act like he expects forgiveness, but he does want to make sure we know that we share part of the responsibility. He made the decision, perhaps, but we formed him and put him there. And I think he’s right about that; I never believed in the great-man theory of history anyway.

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The US-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history — kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time — and today — has not really grappled with what are, I’ll call it, “the rules of war.” Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?

LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?



UPDATE: Mark Seibel at McClatchy asked Joe Galloway for a remembrance of McNamara, and Galloway contributed this gem.

The most bizarre incident involving McNamara occurred when he was president of the World Bank and, off on his summer holiday, he caught the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. It was a night crossing in bad weather. McNamara was in the salon, drink in hand, schmoozing with fellow passengers.

On the deck outside a vineyard local, a hippie artist, glanced through the window and did a double-take. The artist was outraged to see McNamara, whom he viewed as a war criminal, so enjoying himself.

He immediately opened the door and told McNamara there was a radiophone call for him on the bridge. McNamara set down his drink and stepped outside. The artist immediately grabbed him, wrestled him to the railing and pushed him over the side. McNamara managed to get his fingers through the holes in the metal plate that ran from the top of the railing to the scuppers.

McNamara was screaming bloody murder; the artist was prying his fingers loose one at a time. Someone heard the racket and raced out and pulled the artist off.
By the time the ferry docked in the vineyard McNamara had decided against filing charges against the artist, and he was freed and walked away.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at July 07, 2009 04:18 AM
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Wow, Now that's a good story. I missed that incident during that time, but I did despise them all then and now. My sympathies are and were with "the hippie."

Posted by: knowdoubt on July 7, 2009 6:30 AM

I read a McNamara biography some years ago and I think one of the best things to happen to McNamara was when he came home one day and his own teenage son had the American flag flying upside down on the wall of his bedroom, although your story ranks right up there with the best. Quite traumatic for McNamara and rightfully so. I agree with you that the Errol Morris movie was very good, but I don't remember McNamara as being particularly contrite, but I may be wrong about that, it has been a few years since I saw it.

McNamara was undoubtedly a statistical genius, but he lacked the most important trait of all during the most critical years of his life, which were during periods of war - a sense of humanity and compassion and respect for the lives of others, perhaps best expressed in the golden rule. McNamara was a victim of the same propaganda that is the greatest American sins - a sense that we can do no wrong. That is undoubtedly our worst national malady and it has lead us down the path to our engagements in the greatest sin of all - our war mentality and a desire to rush into another after another war, semingly in an endless fashion.

McNamara should have stayed at Ford Motor Company. He is one of the biggest indictments against Kennedy as well as Johnson, although we don't know if Kennedy would have ventured into Vietnam the way Johnson did. But Nixon still managed to develop even greater "efficiency" at war and killing other human beings by using the bombing methods that, as you mentioned, McNamara had helped develop during World War II.

I prefer Bob Herbert's eulogy in todays NY Times for McNamara.


It's hard to be sympathetic towards someone who, despite perhaps an intent to "do well", much like a schoolboy who has been taught to do his lessons well, never learned that statistical analysis can never overcome basic humanity. Hopefully McNamara gets to meet Kurt Vonnegut in the afterlife and live forever after being told the gross inhumanity inflicted upon the civilians of Dresden by the mad Britain, Bomber Harris, not that McNamara may very well have engaged in evaluating the "results" of that horrid decision. McNamara's biggest sins might not have even occurred in Vietnam - they may have been in WWII. After all, he was one of the principal architects of "efficient" bombing campaigns that killed millions. One can never say that McNamara did not learn his lessons well. Only thing is, the lessons lacked the most important of them all, an understanding of the basic tenets of humanity and an acknowledgment that war is always the greatest tragedy of all.

Posted by: Buck on July 7, 2009 8:14 AM

Thanks for a most excellent post!
The unknown hippie should have succeeded - and deserves all respect for his attempt.

Posted by: John Gall on July 7, 2009 11:55 AM

I didn't say McNamara was contrite, because I don't think he was. What made him interesting to me was the contradictions he held in himself. He saw the results of his actions, but he couldn't match them up with himself, thus he couldn't take responsibility for the deaths he caused. And in one sense he was right; we, American citizens, were responsible, because we let people like him hold public office.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on July 7, 2009 4:26 PM
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