Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Pondering the death of Robert McNamara…

Shall we?

Robert McNamara died yesterday at the age of 93.

When I remarked upon his passing to an acquaintance he asked who Robert McNamara was (wince). After I explained that he was the architect of the Vietnam War and his fingerprints are on multiple policy decisions that still impact our world, the acquaintance seemed confused then said, “I thought LBJ was the architect of the Vietnam War.”

Sigh.

A bitch is a history buff and one of my favorite periods to study is post World War II through the 1970’s. Robert McNamara’s name pops up all over the place because the man was all over the damn place. But what sets McNamara apart is that he reflected on his life and how he was all over the damn place and involved in all manner of shit in both a book and the award winning documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons fro the Life of Robert S. McNamara. In the documentary McNamara was both cagey and stunningly honest, manipulative and open…unrepentant and confessional…stunning, to say the least.

I highly recommend viewing The Fog of War just as I highly recommend studying history through as many sources as possible.

McNamara died at the age of 93...58,261 American soldiers and over 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were not so blessed as a result of his work.

And examination of McNamara offers a look at how certainty, ego and secrecy can result in policy that is fubar from the start…

…it also offers an opportunity to reflect on the limits of apology, the wages of war and the sad lack of accountability that eats at those who benefit from it even as it eats at those who object to it.

When I walked along The Wall and the cold stone grew taller and taller with name after name, person after person, friend after friend, son after son, father after father a shudder passed through me and I wondered how one could atone for such death and destruction…and I looked away as a woman wept softly while touching, barely making contact and oh so lightly caressing one name listed among the thousands.

And it is that moment that I think of now...those names and the millions of nameless Vietnamese that I think of now.

May they rest in peace.

And may we work to learn from the lesson of Robert McNamara...

17 comments:

Leota2 said...

I will definitely get The Fog of War.
Sad isn't it--you have to wonder how the populace makes anything but reactionary decisions in this country. History-- it seems-- is now only as pertinent in some people's mind as the last television season.

Cyrus said...

Beautifully put (as always). The absurdity of it all is just so overwhelming to me, I'm glad that you were able to express it so much better than I could've.

David Duff said...

"And may we work to learn from the lesson of Robert McNamara..."

And that lesson would be what, exactly?

Shark-fu said...

David...
Though I'm tempted to answer that one I'm gonna pass the puck back to you - what journey did McNamara take and what can we learn from it?

For me, the lesson is that waking up to the truth of ones actions after indulging in a frenzy of mistaken certainty, ego, lies and the secrecy that fueled all that shit offers cold comfort to us all. When we fear critique and shy away from debate we should question ourselves and from whence those reaction come...lest we start firing blindly into the fog of war.

goatini said...

I've seen "Fog," lived through the Vietnam War years as a child child. RSM was smart and totally dedicated and hideously wrong in ways there is no atoning for (although I give him some respect for his conflicted efforts to do so -- how does one make amends for warmongering and all that goes with it?)
What we must come to see is the necessity for the end of War Culture. We are at an axial moment in human development, and either we practice the idea that violence is never acceptable (outside of sport perhaps - gotta put that Urge soemwhere), or we will experience an agonizing planetary decline into what those suffering worst already experience -- savage murder, raperaperaperaperape, atrocity upon atrocity, unspeakable deprivation, putrescent avarice. There is only one ultimate outcome to War Culture, however long it takes, and we seem to be careening downhill.
We must grow beyond nationalism, patriotism, domination, militarism, into a Cooperative organism of some kind.

Or not. Maybe this is just everyone crowding into the theatre for the end of the movie, and those leaving have guessed the ending. I'm the kind that stays to watch the credits roll. Butter and salt?

Anonymous said...

I think William Blake said it best, "The weak in courage is strong in cunning."

If I had my lifetime choice, it would be courage, and honesty - lessons not learned from McNamara which I hope he eventually figured out after 93 years.

David Duff said...

Well, 'Shark-fu', as you admit in your first sentence that was no answer to my question at all - not, I hasten to add, that you are under any obligation to do so, but still . . .

Your second paragraph mystifies me - easily done these days! In the first sentence you say that MacNamara's apparent recantation of his former policies offers you little comfort. Hardly surprising given that that was not the object of the exercise. As for the second sentence, all I can recall throughout the Vietnam war was never-ending 'critiques' and 'debates' from all directions.

Of course, to quote one of your own playwrights, "that's all blood under the bridge". Looking back, at the war, at MacNamara's part in it, and his consequent admission of mistakes made, you are entitled to ask what lessons can be learned. To me, the only mistake he made, a mistake he shares with very many others, was to lose.

That thought will outrage both you and some of your commenters. I would offer up the suggestion that even a detailed study of post-WWII 'history' is not quite enough to teach you that war is an integral part of the human condition. Lest you doubt me, start back with the Greco-Persian wars and read onwards from there!

Shark-fu said...

"David"...
I often revisit the Persian Wars for perspective on modern history...but hey, thanks for looking out for me and all!

As for your mystification, I suspect you set out to be confused by whatever I say and thus are pleased with that result.

But you failed to outrage...lust for war hasn't been outrageous since...well, since before 499 B.C.

'Tis predictable...like a knee jerking during a reflex test.

That doesn't make it an integral part of the human condition anymore than walking around naked is integral to the human condition because we spent the majority of our existance strutting all our stuff.

Some evolve...others spin in circles, fall to the ground and puke, puzzle over that for a spell and then get up and start spinning again.

AOB said...

I have been to VietNam twice and have had the BEST French food there as in Paris. I love the people and the country and am SO GLAD that some damage has been undone (diplomatically that is).

The French were there decades before we were and VietNam was a 'situation' in the 1950's. The proof of the French occupation is still seen in the culture, especially the food..coffee and desserts being most notable.

In 1945 Ho Chih Minh announced the
formation of the democratic republic of VietNam, but Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had already decided to carve up the country, the northern half under the control of the Chinese and the Southern half under the Brits. Notice that China officially became a communist country in 1949. France was unable to maintain their empire after WWII and thus completely departed the country in 1954.

Eishenhower sent 'advisors' during his Presidency and the escalation followed.

It never ceases to amaze me what human beings do to one another.

IseultTheIdle said...

I would offer up the observation that the greater mistake was in accepting the assumption of the domino effect.

People were hysterical about Communism in the 50s and early 60s. Hysteria is a bad beginning for anything, particularly for a war. We never seem to learn that one, though.

He went along with the hawks for various reasons, even in the face of his own dowbts as to the wisdom of escalating the war.

He was responsible for going along.

StonyPillow said...

Sorry, Shark-fu. You are so perceptive about so many things, but you let a movie cloud your judgment.

Some sins and some crimes are just unforgivable, at least by us. If, instead of shifting over to the World Bank (where he did his part to enable third world dictators to further impoverish their countries), he had gone to an ashram and devoted his life and fortune to good works and prayer, if in the last forty years of his life he did more for world peace and understanding between peoples than Gandhi himself, he would still carry the millstone of his guilt for Vietnam with him to his grave. Which I would gladly whiz on.

May the Lord have mercy on his nasty, shrivelled, bean-counting soul.

David Duff said...

No need to place inverted commas round my name, 'Shark-fu', because it is my real name. And believe me, I do not ever seek to find more confusion in a world that leaves me perpetually dazed, but you do have a writing style all of your own which is, shall we say, occasionally elliptical - which adds to its charm, I should add.

For example, if you agree with me that war is part and parcel of the human condition since we first learned to throw stones then why all the outrage from you and most of your commenters concerning MacNamara's particular war - except that he (and others) lost it!

And I am still seeking the answer to my original question as to exactly what lesson can be learned from MacNamara's life? I'm not picking a fight here, I think it's an interesting question and I have been thinking about it myself - with not much result other than the military needs to study their craft with greater attention.

Shark-fu said...

David...
To answer your original question I urge you to read McNamara's book and watch The Fog of War. In both McNamara examines not just the military strategy but the political culture that guided that strategy. he explores the human factor not just the players on the field and, in doing so, presents us with the lessons he feels are to be learned. My suggestion is that we can all learn lessons from McNamara's post war analysis - one key lesson being that there is more to war than battles on the field.

Shark-fu said...

StonyPillow...
I don't believe I offered forgiveness. Examining and forgiving are two very different things. But a bitch shall check my Afro for clouds just the same...

David Duff said...

"one key lesson being that there is more to war than battles on the field."

Delighted that we end this conversation in complete agreement.

Marla said...

Interesting parallel - McNamara lied about the Tonkin Gulf incident, and we ended up in a clusterfuck of a war. Bush lied about the WMDs and again we find ourselves in a clusterfuck of a war. One lesson we can take from these incidents is that we should question, question, and question again any time somebody tells us we need to make war on somebody else, and we aren't even clear what offense they've committed or what "principle" we're defending. Just for starters.

CKaye said...

I was amused by the hysteria and rage expressed by the Bush/Cheney contingent when the term "quagmire" was used as a descriptor of their war. Musn't make ANY connections between the unwinnable Viet Nam war and Iraq!

Like many people I am sickened and saddened by Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan. 3rd surge, approx. 1,000 American lives, hundreds and thousands of Afghanese lives, and billions of dollars of debt we can't afford, and we are going to try it again, 'cause dagganit, maybe this time when we bash our heads against the wall it will not hurt! I am sick at us for not having learned our lesson yet.

There is one thing I'm really sure of, and that is that McNamara developed immense guilt over his actions in Viet Nam; for years I saw him on the talking head shows, trying to show why he did it, what the pressures were, and who really led us into the fray. He is dead now, and I wonder if the angels forgive him.