Monday, July 06, 2009

The end of a McEra

Robert Strange McNamara died today at 93 years of age. Every piece of news on the matter I have seen or heard first describes his role as the architect of the Vietnam war (he was Kennedy's and then Johnson's Secretary of Defense). And then describes his actions, and/or the war in general, as a mistake. That to me isn't news. What is news is that for the past 10 years, McNamara has been attempting to make amends for his past deeds by trying to learn why and how he and the rest of Washington sent hundreds of thousands of young American men to their deaths and millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians. By writing books on the subject, sitting down for interviews, by attending conferences with his counter parts at the time of the war.
In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” In return, he faced a firestorm of scorn.

“Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in a widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.

He had spent decades thinking through the lessons of the war. The greatest of these was to know one’s enemy — and to “empathize with him,” as Mr. McNamara explained in Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.”

“We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes,” he said. The American failure in Vietnam, he said, was seeing the enemy through the prism of the cold war, as a domino that would topple the nations of Asia if it fell.

That wasn't the only war he which admitted to wrongdoing even.

In the film, Mr. McNamara described the American firebombing of Japan’s cities in World War II. He had played a supporting role in those attacks, running statistical analysis for Gen. Curtis E. LeMay of the Army’s Air Forces.

“We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children,” Mr. McNamara recalled; some 900,000 Japanese civilians died in all. “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.”

“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he asked. He found the question impossible to answer.
To my knowledge, no one ever accused the former president of Ford Motor Company of incompetency.
Chester L. Cooper, a senior official at the State Department when McNamara was at Defense, wrote in "The Lost Crusade" that McNamara's brilliant staff and his "unique ability to grasp and synthesize a vast mass and variety of information made him the best informed official in Washington." But McNamara's insistence on dealing with Vietnam in the same way he dealt with other issues led him into miscalculations, Cooper said. Cooper summarized McNamara's approach in a memorable portrait:

"His typical trip involved leaving Washington in the evening and, after a 24-hour journey and a 13-hour time change, arriving at Saigon at eight in the morning. The Secretary would emerge from the plane and suggest graciously that his fellow-travelers take a half-hour or so to wash up and then join him at a 9 o'clock briefing at MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] headquarters. There, for the next three hours, they were expected not merely to add up figures but to absorb a rapid-fire series of complicated military briefings. . . . . While we less adaptable beings desperately attempted to make sense out of the mass of information, McNamara queried every apparent inconsistency and was usually well ahead of the briefers."

He and his "whiz kids" were supposed to use their knowledge from running big complex companies and all of the modern management tools of statistical and systems analysis. In the end, all of his brains and skills didn't help him from dragging the U.S. deeper and deeper into an unnecessary war that had nothing to do with communism or the balance of power.

But the fact that a man who has been characterized as a monster chose to face many of his mistakes head on and in public is a very admirable thing that his family should be proud of and that Americans should reward in their their public servants.

Sure it took him 30 years to admit to some, but not all of his mistakes, even though at the time he was coming to realize the folly of the war.
When Mr. McNamara held a rare private briefing for reporters in Honolulu in February 1966, he no longer possessed the radiant confidence he had always displayed in public. Mr. McNamara said with conviction, “No amount of bombing can end the war.”
On Sept. 19, 1966, Mr. McNamara telephoned Johnson.

“I myself am more and more convinced that we ought definitely to plan on termination of bombing in the North,” Mr. McNamara said, according to White House tapes.

He also suggested establishing a ceiling on the number of troops to be sent to Vietnam. “I don’t think we ought to just look ahead to the future and say we’re going to go higher and higher and higher and higher — 600,000; 700,00; whatever it takes.”

The president’s only response was an unintelligible grunt.

Yet the path towards making amends wasn't a smooth one:
An incident that reflected the temper of those tense, bitter years occurred in November 1966, when McNamara traveled to Harvard for an informal discussion with undergraduates. He was mobbed by about 800 jeering students, who blocked his car and cried "Murderer!"

The secretary, never apologetic, climbed atop his car, in shirt sleeves despite the New England chill, and told the crowd: "I spent four of the happiest years of my life on the Berkeley campus, doing some of the things you do today. But I was tougher than you, and I'm tougher than you are now. I was more courteous then, and I hope I'm more courteous today."

He also tried to do the right thing as head of the World Bank.
As he had done at the Pentagon and Ford, Mr. McNamara sought to remake the bank. When he arrived on April 1, 1968, the bank was lending about $1 billion a year. That figure grew until it stood at $12 billion when he left in 1981. By that time the bank oversaw some 1,600 projects valued at $100 billion in 100 nations, including hydroelectric dams, superhighways and steel factories.

The ecological effects of these developments, however, had not been taken into account. In some cases, corruption in the governments that the bank sought to help undid its good intentions. Many poor nations, overwhelmed by their debts to the bank, were not able to repay loans.

The costs of Mr. McNamara’s work thus sometimes outweighed the benefits, and that led to a concerted political attack on the bank itself during the 1980s.

He did more than get dams built as president of the World Bank.
He spent a year, for example, thinking about what to say in a 1982 speech at the University of the Witwatersrand, in apartheid South Africa. Then he told his audience that America's "century of delay in moving to end our shameful discrimination toward black Americans . . . was without question the most serious mistake in our entire history, and the hard truth is that all Americans will continue to [pay] a heavy price for it for decades to come." He urged South Africa not to make the same mistake.
I read his last book, Argument without End and attended a Q & A when he came to speak at my college (because Prof. James Blight was the co-author). He came across as a brilliant man seeking repentance and trying to tell the world how to avoid another Vietnam. Yet he did not speak out against the Iraq War in 2002 or 2003. The closest he got was this:
“We are the strongest nation in the world today,” Mr. McNamara said in “The Fog of War,” released at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”

“War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend,” he concluded. “Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

The real question to ponder today is not McNamara's legacy, whether he was a great man or an arrogant one, but whether, in 30 years or less, Donald Rumsfeld will be making the rounds apologizing for his immoral actions and incompetence. McNamara was still a young man when LBJ kicked him upstairs to the World Bank; he still had 42 years left to live after leaving the Pentagon. In contrast, Rumsfeld is 77 years old. If he is so lucky to live as long as McNamara, he only has 20 years to confess to his crimes against humanity. His memoir, slated to come out next year, sounds like a defense of his actions, not catharsis. Will anyone within the Bush inner circle have a McNamara-style change of heart and desire to come to terms with that they did? Sadly, I doubt it.