Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Grief and Struggle of Robert McNamara

“’Terribly Wrong’ Handling of Vietnam Overshadowed Record of Achievement.”

“Robert S. McNamara, Architect of a Futile War, Dies at 93.”

“Vietnam War Architect Robert McNamara Dies.”

“Architect of Vietnam War Later Revealed His Regrets.”

“A Onetime ‘Whiz Kid’ Brought Low by Vietnam.”

Yesterday’s death of former Secretary of Defense and World Bank President Robert McNamara naturally made the front page of countless newspapers across the country, and you really only had to look at the headlines (such as the ones above from, in order, the Washington Post, New York Times, Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal) to get a sense of what slant the different writers would be taking. No matter the angle, however, Vietnam was the centerpiece of each story (and of the numerous personal reminiscences run on the op-ed pages of each paper) – surpassed only by the focus on the internal struggle McNamara faced from the time he stepped down from his post in the Johnson Administration in 1968 until the day he died.

Even though I was born during the height of the Vietnam War, I’ve never really considered myself part of the Vietnam generation. Thankfully, the war by and large bypassed my family – my father missed on having to go because of a previously-broken ankle, and my father-in-law was a C-130 pilot in the Air Force who flew several tours there in the 1960s before returning safely to the United States. Despite that, Robert McNamara was someone with whom I have always been familiar, at least peripherally. I haven’t read his 1995 memoir (yet), and I haven’t seen the 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (yet), but I do know that he fought mightily to come to grips with the role he played in the war.

Among all of the stories, analysis and recollections that I’ve read today, one passage from the Washington Post story really jumped out at me. In it McNamara is quoted as saying: “We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo – men, women and children,” he told [Errol] Morris [producer of the 2003 documentary]. “[General Curtis] LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost,” he added. “But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

It’s a new way of looking at the old saying about history being written by the victors, and I think it’s a glimpse – albeit a small one – into the intellectual and emotional struggle in which McNamara found himself during the past four decades. Looking at the Tokyo raid in World War II, as well as the horrific raid on Dresden during the same conflict, people have acknowledged these were tragic occurrences – but not much else. Had we in fact lost the Second World War, would we view these any more differently? And don’t you think that the Japanese and Germans view these under a different lens as well?

Not having known McNamara and not yet having read his book or seen the documentary, I can only guess that his statement about the morality or immorality of the Tokyo bombing was a reflection of his deeper internal struggle about this country’s role in Vietnam – and the tremendous cost in both in lives and national morale that we had to endure and which lingered for many years. The loss of 56,000 Americans in Southeast Asia was a tremendous tragedy, and I can only surmise from what I do know that McNamara deeply felt the loss of each one of those men and women every day for the rest of his life.

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