Robert McNamara died yesterday. Just a few weeks ago, we watched The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary -- easily one of the three best documentaries I've ever seen — about McNamara's involvement in World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.
Unsurprisingly, the movie is an indictment of the United States' conduct in the Vietnam War. What is surprising is that this is accomplished almost entirely through McNamara's own voice — occasionally supplemented with historical recordings of U.S. officials, but without a single sentence from an anti-war or even neutral commentator. One of the most memorable moments is when McNamara — staring directly into the camera, as he does throughout the movie — strongly suggests that he would appropriately be called a "war criminal."
On the other hand, one of the most frustrating moments is his response at the very end of the film to questions about why he didn't speak out against the war. He cryptically says that he had good reasons and that his decision would make sense to people who know everything he knows. In contrast with the rest of the movie, we hear him talking while seeing him in profile, somberly driving his car, rather than making eye contact with us.
Mickey Kaus wrote, in this 1995 review of McNamara's memoir:
I met McNamara once, at a conference. He was self-effacing, and breathtakingly concise. I understand the charm. But there is something wrong with a culture in which a McNamara is feted for his "guts" while George McGovern and Gene McCarthy, who opposed McNamara's mistakes, are regarded as nobodies. In one of the uglier passages of In Retrospect, McNamara sneers at the antiwar protesters who marched on the Pentagon in 1967. If they had been more "disciplined" and "Gandhi-like," he says, "they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down." Instead they were "troublemakers" who "threw mud balls" and "even unzipped [soldiers'] flies." This is contrition? Shouldn't McNamara be admitting that the mudball-throwers, after all, had been right?
McNamara's book confirms what he had often hinted: that he came to believe the war was unwinnable as early as 1965. At that point, as Paul Hendrickson of The Washington Post has noted, 1,335 Americans had been killed. Why didn't McNamara quit and speak out? He claims that would have been "a violation of my oath to uphold the Constitution." Cabinet officials who quit must do it "silently," he says, citing as a model Dean Acheson, who resigned from FDR's administration when he "found himself unable to accept the president's monetary policy."
Monetary policy! By the time McNamara left the Pentagon for the World Bank, another 14,000 Americans were dead. [If I remember correctly from the movie, McNamara states that the figure is around 25,000. — JAC] And of course the war didn't stop then. President Nixon continued it for five more years, although McNamara now says Nixon should have withdrawn. Surely whatever strictures prevented McNamara from criticizing Johnson wouldn't have prevented him from speaking out against Nixon. Even if he hadn't yet decided on withdrawal, simply giving voice to his doubts would have had an impact. Yet he didn't do it, while another 42,000 died. As McNamara puts it, defending his infamous quantitative approach to military success, "things you can count, you ought to count. Loss of life is one...."
And why, suddenly, having maintained his costly silence for so long, does McNamara break it now? Because, he says, he has "grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders." Please. Wouldn't the cynicism have been less if he'd spoken up earlier, maybe even at the risk of losing his prestigious World Bank job? Let me offer an alternative--more cynical--explanation for McNamara's strange sense of timing, one that fairly leaps off the pages of his book: he is acting now to protect his posthumous reputation.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in a gushing back-cover blurb for In Retrospect, asks: "Can anyone remember a public official with the courage to confess error and explain where he and his country went wrong?" An answer to this question does come readily to mind, or should have come readily to Schlesinger's mind: Robert Kennedy, who admitted his own culpability when breaking with Johnson over Vietnam in 1968. But Kennedy showed his courage when it made a difference in the lives of others. McNamara only found his when the one left to save was himself.
ADDED: Joel Achenbach points out this passage from Paul Hendrickson's book on McNamara:
At the time Robert McNamara seems most likely to have lost his faith in the military aspect of the war, in the late fall of 1965, after the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the official U.S. casualty figures stood at 1,335 dead and 6,131 wounded. That is a total of 7,466. Almost two years later, in early October 1967 -- which was approximately the time when LBJ began actively setting out to remove McNamara from the Pentagon, now convinced his once-awesome defense secretary had gone "dovish" on him -- the casualty figures had hit 100,269. Which is to say that nearly 93,000 people were wounded or met their death or were reported missing in the period of the defense secretary's disbelief.
There it was, the essential contradiction of a public man's life, cold and glinting on the legal page, acknowledged now by the man himself: that he had ceased believing in the military efficacy of a war that he had stayed on to prosecute anyway.