May 25, 2012
Pissing in a Blue Serge Suit

Here’s David Barash, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

There’s a noteworthy trend among retired military and civilian officials who, in their professional capacity, held senior roles with regard to our nuclear weaponry: When they retire, they often see the error of their ways, denounce what they have done and apologize for how they “succeeded” in their careers…

For example, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s baleful influence went far beyond escalating the Vietnam War. More than anyone else, he was personally responsible for the immense escalation in the number of deployed U.S. warheads during the 1960s. After retiring from his Defense post and a stint heading up the World Bank, McNamara announced that much of what he had done during the Johnson Administration was quite literally a mistake.

In Errol Morris’s superb documentary, The Fog of War, in addition to admitting his colossal and murderous Vietnam blunders, McNamara commented as follows: “The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7,500 offensive strategic nuclear warheads, of which 2,500 are on a 15-minute alert to be launched at the decision of one human being?” Clearly, his answer was No.

What a shame that he didn’t act on this realization when he had the authority to do so!

A politician’s first duty, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, is to get elected. This requires telling a frightened, ignorant and superstitious electorate what it wants to hear. A Reagan or a George W. Bush can do this with an untroubled heart, since what we want to hear is what he wants to say.

A rising bureaucrat may or may not be in agreement with those in a position to advance his career. If the latter, he must put his convictions in a blind trust for future use, once he reaches the top of his personal ladder. Then, he tells himself, he will be free at last do the right thing.

But that day never comes; once a courtier, always a courtier. Look at Robert M. Gates and Colin Powell, good soldiers to the last.

Nothing is left, then, but to write your memoirs and hope the next guy will learn from them. It’s no use blaming McNamara for this. If he had “acted on this realization” at the time, McGeorge Bundy or some other striver left over from the Kennedy White House would have become secretary of defense.

It would have been, as Lyndon Johnson used to say in his simple, homespun way, like pissing in a blue serge suit. The wearer gets a nice, warm feeling, and nobody else notices a thing.

McNamara couldn’t have have changed the course of history a bit by rebelling, any more than Obama could have called off our pointless and idiotic “War on Terror” in 2009. It’s what the boss ordered, and we ordered it because we are what we are.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at May 25, 2012 07:21 PM
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Sigh, Jerry, you make me want to weep. Because you are so right,

Posted by: Peter on May 27, 2012 11:28 AM
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