I suppose that I am somewhat late to the story of Robert McNamara’s passing, but I didn’t want to comment until I had a chance to see The Fog of War, which has been on my list of movies I wanted to see, and which so many had raved about. So I downloaded it from iTunes and watched it last night.
It is easy to see why so many viewed McNamara as a brilliant intellect. At age 85–the age he was when Errol Morris interviewed him for the documentary–McNamara was sharp as a tack, possessed of an excellent memory, a powerful ability to tell stories, clearly reflective and contemplative, and demonstrated an admirable intellectual curiosity as he considered his life, his experiences, and the rules that he derived from his life and work background. Would that all of us are able to be as mentally potent when we reach advanced ages.
Counterbalancing McNamara’s admirable display of intellectual firepower, however, were the recordings of conversations between McNamara and President Johnson, conversations that revealed that despite McNamara’s outward confidence that the war in Vietnam was going well, and that America was winning it, both he and Johnson harbored severe and grave doubts concerning the prosecution of the war, and whether America should have even been involved in the first place. The recordings are fascinating, if appalling–causing one to wonder how a man as smart as McNamara could have gone so wrong, how he could have tolerated so dramatic a difference between his public statements on Vietnam and his private views. The divergence between McNamara’s public and private comments are so significant, that one wonders why it was that he did not express his doubts earlier. We learn that McNamara’s concerns grew pronounced enough that he began making policy recommendations to Johnson that Johnson could not countenance. When the policy differences became serious enough, Johnson announced that McNamara would leave the Defense Department and head up the World Bank, where he stayed until 1981.
Why didn’t McNamara talk earlier? He doesn’t really say, but it appears that his public show of support was out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to President Johnson. I say “misplaced,” because while a Secretary of Defense is supposed to be loyal to the President, that loyalty is supposed to come to an end when there emerges the kind of serious policy differences that caused McNamara to speak out against the war in private, and finally caused him to leave the Johnson Administration. At that point, a public servant’s loyalty is only to his or her conscience, and policy concerns and objections ought to be given a voice and spoken to directly in public. It is, after all, the only way that the demands of conscience will or can be met.
But even if we accept that McNamara remained silent out of loyalty to Johnson, we are at a loss when we ask why McNamara shut down the conversation over Vietnam near the end of the movie, stating simply that the war was too complicated to comment on, and that if McNamara tried to offer commentary, he would simply get into trouble. His reasoning was silly. Johnson was long dead, there had been a great deal of commentary concerning Vietnam, and while the subject matter certainly was complicated, it was not as if McNamara could not offer some insightful nuggets of historical analysis. It seemed as if McNamara was caught between wanting to examine his role in crafting and implementing Vietnam policy, and wanting to move on. The end result was a halting, somewhat pitiful display on his part.
But at the end, I was fascinated by the man’s discussion of his life, his experiences, and the lessons he derived. Incomplete as it was, his discussion of Vietnam was gripping. And at the end, I felt sorry for him. Robert McNamara was clearly a good person who was caught in events the likes of which he could never have possibly contemplated he would have had to contend with. He was a very smart man who was conditioned to trust in his intellect, and clearly spent the rest of his life trying to figure out how that intellect failed him, and failed the nation. After leaving the Defense Department, he spent his days haunted and melancholy. Short of actually dying in office, he paid the ultimate price for trying to serve his country.
There are, of course, people who believe that he did not pay enough. I am not one of them, and if there were any possibility that I would be one of them, that possibility dissipated into thin air when I watched this brilliant, hyper-competitive, prideful, egotistical, arrogant, profound, reflective, stubborn, and inquisitive man searching–even flailing–to try to understand his place in history, and to atone for the wrongs he believed he was responsible for.
Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.