Join 3,497 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Strange
July 6, 2009 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Former US Secretary of Defense and 'architect of the Vietnam War' Robert S. McNamara has died at age 93.

The Outsider: How Robert McNamara Changed the Automobile Industry
McNamara's Many Wars
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara google video / transcript (previously)
Conversations with History: Robert S. McNamara
posted by lullaby (76 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Other than one blotch on his resume, he would have been a great man. .
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:17 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why, did it cross by Clinton's desk?
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 7:18 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, he was basically a war criminal (twice over, by his account, if you include the fire bombing of Japan). On the other hand, can you name another secretary of defense with the balls and the empathy to come out and discuss his guilt and doubts publicly? Even if it took him three decades before he could do so, that was a brave and honorable step to take.
posted by Forktine at 7:22 AM on July 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


.
posted by Scoo at 7:22 AM on July 6, 2009


Smart guy.
posted by autodidact at 7:26 AM on July 6, 2009


.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:27 AM on July 6, 2009


"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam". Great read, highly recommended, and can be found here.
posted by spirit72 at 7:29 AM on July 6, 2009


Good riddance. We haven't even begun to pay for our crimes in Vietnam. And if McNamara gets to live to be 93, it's clear that nature isn't going to do it for us. And we wonder why we as a nation rinse and repeat with these crimes against humanity.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:30 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Even if it took him three decades before he could do so, that was a brave and honorable step to take."

Oh christ don't make me puke with that sanctimonious horseshit. If it takes you three fucking decades, it is not 'brave and honorable' by definition. Contemptible.

Guy said that to assuage his conscience when he had nothing to lose. That isn't making amends. It's weakness.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 7:30 AM on July 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


Hold it. McNamara wasn't a War College graduate? He was an automobile executive? And a particularly close-minded and poorly-informed one? Chosen to head the Pentagon.

Oh yeah, that'll end well.
posted by DU at 7:33 AM on July 6, 2009


.
posted by disclaimer at 7:37 AM on July 6, 2009


Oh christ don't make me puke with that sanctimonious horseshit. If it takes you three fucking decades, it is not 'brave and honorable' by definition. Contemptible.

Look, I'm not going to defend McNamara as a great man. He wasn't. He was really, really smart... but managed to be wrong in incredibly important ways, and was a war criminal.

But can you imagine Rumsfeld (equally smart, equally wrong, equally guilty of war crimes) ever expressing doubts and feeling guilt, much less coming clean about his actions and motivations?

In comparison to some others who have held that office, and to many of the other people who worked with him in the planning and execution of the Vietnam War, McNamara comes off looking pretty good in being open and empathetic. Sure, that doesn't excuse the war crimes, but what would?
posted by Forktine at 7:43 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


But can you imagine Rumsfeld (equally smart, equally wrong, equally guilty of war crimes) ever expressing doubts and feeling guilt, much less coming clean about his actions and motivations?

Ever? Yes. Early enough to do something about the current war criminals or at least prevent the next Vietnam/Iraq? No.
posted by DU at 7:48 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


He's still hated in a lot of corners on the Left; but I think he's a different case than the warlords that ran this country until last year. He was, in many ways, the real deal: earnest, idealistic, patriotic and misguided. He spent half his life seeking redemption and forgiveness and I think he earned it. Of course his warnings weren't heeded; his mistakes were out of a flawed, but sincere, old-school-liberal vision of a better world. His modern counterparts acted out of a cynical vision of power, greed and disinterest. They couldn't learn from his mistakes because they didn't make a mistake: this is what they wanted.

Certainly, he was playing Cold War chess at the highest levels, and the pawns were the lives of thousands of Southeast Asians and American troops. And his remorse is small comfort if your village was fire-bombed or your brother came home in a body bag. Can the stain of war ever be wiped clean, no matter how well-intentioned or later regretted? Probably not. But I don't believe it is has simple has "good riddance". The fog of war is real, and not just on the battlefield.
posted by spaltavian at 7:53 AM on July 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


dances_with_sneetches: Other than one blotch on his resume, he would have been a great man. .

"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, ..."
posted by hangashore at 7:53 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Marginal Revolution on McNamara's time at the World Bank.
posted by mullacc at 7:59 AM on July 6, 2009


A smart guy when it came to numbers, blinded by hubris. But at least he had the guts to eventually admit his mistakes in the hopes that others didn't repeat his folly.

Granted, making amends in the last chapter of his life didn't undo the damage he wrought, but his willingness to admit he was wrong--flat wrong--demonstrates a kind of sense-of-self that has clearly gone out of style (and yes, I'm looking at you, Dick Cheney). It's just too bad that the people who were meant to heed his warnings in Fog of War et al seemingly passed it off as little more than the ramblings of an old man.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 7:59 AM on July 6, 2009


I was under the impression he was chosen to head defense because the armed forces were modernizing, moving away from their reliance on WWII technology and an executive from the auto industry would be a good match. There's no doubt he was a bright guy.

While at Ford he opposoed the bloated Edsel and championed the Ford Falcon, an affordable "everyman" car. From Wikipedia - McNamara placed a high emphasis on safety standards, introducing in the Lifeguard package both the seat belt, and a dished steering wheel that reduced the chances of a driver being impaled by the steering column., this in the late 50's.

And hindsight is 20/20, but being a member of the establishment, during the cold war, he had his prejudices - but he remained open to opposing ideas.

From the Dept of Defense website

Although he loyally supported administration policy, McNamara gradually became skeptical about whether the war could be won by deploying more troops to South Vietnam and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam. He traveled to Vietnam many times to study the situation firsthand. He became increasingly reluctant to approve the large force increments requested by the military commanders. The Tet offensive of early 1968, although a military defeat for the enemy, clearly indicated that the road ahead for both the United States and the South Vietnamese government was still long and hard. By this time McNamara had already submitted his resignation, chiefly because of his disillusionment with the war.

As McNamara grew more and more controversial after 1966 and his differences with the president and the JCS over Vietnam policy became the subject of public speculation, frequent rumors surfaced that he would leave office. Yet there was great surprise when President Johnson announced on 29 November 1967 that McNamara would resign to become president of the World Bank.


He was in a difficult position, opposing the president and generals.

not a perfect man, but a long an interesting life, President of Ford, in the Kennedy and John administrations and head of the World Bank.

After being widowed he remarried at 88. That kind of thing always warms me towards someone, the eternal capacity for love.
posted by readery at 8:00 AM on July 6, 2009


"can you imagine Rumsfeld (equally smart, equally wrong, equally guilty of war crimes) ever expressing doubts and feeling guilt, much less coming clean about his actions and motivations?"

No. Rumsfeld appears to be entirely lacking in self awareness, or any ethical compass at all, judging by some of his statements in press conferences during the Iraq war. Rumsfeld is also rather a stupid man, it appears.

But it in no way changes McNamara or what he did. He was the same as Rumsfeld, except he felt the need to assuage his conscience decades later. The comparison really means nothing, in actual outcomes.

It's like being an evil vicious 16th century Duke, killing hundreds of people, and then later making confession on your deathbed and some priest blesses you. Utterly meaningless. A sop.

Nobody learns anything, nobody gains, he shakes nothing up. If he had walked out of the Pentagon after the carpetbombing, day one, waving his hands, saying "hey, wait a minute, this is WRONG!" different story. That would take guts, and it would shake things up, it would be a scandal, make all the papers, force discussion, maybe mankind or that generation would have had to confront a few things, maybe come away changed. Maybe.

Nobody really gave a damn what McNamara said late last century. It was swept under the carpet. Aside from a few deep television documentaries with heavy string soundtracks and old men talking to camera against black backdrops, what impact did it have? Did it stop people like Bush & Rumsfeld doing the same things? Not a jot. It was all about him, and how he felt.

Harsh, perhaps.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:01 AM on July 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


I watched the Fog of War. It made me sick. Robert McNamara rattles off statistics about the Japanese and Vietnamese people he bombed, with nary a tear, then chokes up when he recalls the death of a single anonymous american airman who was lost as a result of their bombing strategy. I got the impression that, in spite of his proclaimed remorse, he really never grasped the human cost of what he did.

Want to understand him? Read Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, or The Reckoning. Or A Bright Shining Lie.

The man was, IMO, very smart and very stupid. If something - anything - could be assigned a numerical value, then that took on an aura of almost religious truth - unquestionable, unassailable. He'd spout off metrics about body counts in Vietnam, tons of bombs dropped and so forth. Then someone would say, 'gee, I've got a bad feeling about the war. my gut tells me we're losing this one big time' and McNamara would have nothing but contempt for the naysayer.

Or in a factfinding mission to Vietnam, a junior military officer would start spouting fictional statistics and metrics on body counts and war progress, and McNamara would unquestioningly eat it up. Reporters at the briefing had to walk outside lest they break out in laughter, the scene was so ridiculous.

At Ford, questions of style or other human issues were outside his understanding. For instance he couldn't concieve why anyone would want a convertible. He created the style-less, utilitarian Falcon - later Iacocca and friends took the Falcon's drive train, and made the fashionable Mustang.

Or at Ford, during test runs of his cars, he couldn't understand why the same type of car, driven on the test track, would get different numbers of MPG for each test. The engineers tried to explain that it depended on the weather, road conditions, the driver in question etc. He dismissed it. His underlings had to smooth the data (basically fudge it) before he'd accept it.

As Halberstam writes it, in his life he was driven by an ambitious covetousness for power. He was more than willing to dissemble, to the US nation or to others in the administration (like inventing fake statistics on the spot) in order to achieve and maintain the power.

By his own admission (see the Fog of War) he is a war criminal, if not in fact then he's morally equivalent to one.

A great man? A smart man? Pardon me, but I can't see how.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 8:09 AM on July 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Meh.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:17 AM on July 6, 2009


"He's still hated in a lot of corners on the Left;"...

Or maybe just anyone who values the idea of human decency and respect for other peoples, or the idea that the people who perpetrate acts like this, whether under some twisted ideology or not should have to pay for them. If that's even possible. A good portion of the worlds political problems could be minimized or solved if we could keep people like him out of power.

Fuck that guy, and all of his cohorts.
posted by -t at 8:18 AM on July 6, 2009


Where's he buried? I know a number of Vietnam veterans that have pretty much been holding out so they can piss on it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:20 AM on July 6, 2009


guy was a dick.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:23 AM on July 6, 2009


This is going well.
posted by proj at 8:25 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


The comments I've heard this morning on (domestic US) radio have referred to "broad" anti-war sentiment and the 58,000 American "casualties" (! rather than "killed", as the casualties were at least an order of magnitude more and then some). I've not heard anything about the million Vietnamese killed. Not a peep.
posted by JF Ptak at 8:27 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


-t: "He's still hated in a lot of corners on the Left;"...

Or maybe just anyone who values the idea of human decency and respect for other peoples, or the idea that the people who perpetrate acts like this, whether under some twisted ideology or not should have to pay for them. If that's even possible. A good portion of the worlds political problems could be minimized or solved if we could keep people like him out of power.

Fuck that guy, and all of his cohorts.


Your outrage impresses me, and will no doubt shame me from seeking a nuanced view of a complex situation ever again.
posted by spaltavian at 8:30 AM on July 6, 2009 [24 favorites]


On a mostly unrelated and narcissistic note, it was weird growing up with his last name. As a youngster, it was cool to find your name in the encyclopedia or some such, but as I grew older and realized what he was famous for, I realized why my dad or family didn't exactly brag about it. (Not that we were related, but if I ever asked about him, my dad generally brushed me aside -- as he did about most things Vietnam-related for the greater part of my life.)

For the most part (or at least until Nip/Tuck), he was the only person anybody usually knew with my surname, though, sadly, even most people who grew up with him weren't quite sure who he was. Those that did always had this beat-of-recognition when they weren't quite sure why they knew this name and weren't quite sure why they didn't like it. In other words, it's like not like growing up as Mike Hitler, which would have been more obvious.

My dad, though full of bile for him, was impressed that he tried to apologize later in life. I'm unsure. We both agree he's going to have to be judged by a higher power than us for the mistakes he made.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


A great obit post for one of the most influential actors of the 20th century.

I understand the anger here (I feel it myself; I can pretty much say I never met my uncle because McNamara sent him to die in Vietnam). Still, McNamara did nothing which the military-industrial complex around him would have found unusual: that should give us pause about the institution as well as the person. And, if you watch Fog of War (which I can't recommend highly enough - Errol Morris does a really fair job in presenting all the moral ambiguities of McNamara), you discover how someone who lived that life becomes an ambiguous yet authentic advocate for nuclear abolition.

McNamara deserves our criticism, but no more than Kennedy and LBJ do.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:37 AM on July 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Your outrage impresses me, and will no doubt shame me from seeking a nuanced view of a complex situation ever again.

Robert McNamara was, directly or indirectly, complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people; many of them - I think it's safe to say, a majority of them - were civilians.

Yes, that does create feelings of outrage in many people...
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 8:38 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Even if it took him three decades before he could do so, that was a brave and honorable step to take."

He didn't make amends. His so-called self-reflection and pubic penitence was a masterful exercise in false contrition, a sophisticated moral feint in which, in the end, it was always other people's fault.

He was a product of an era which prized the idea of expertise, and in that sense, he was a wholly different animal than Rumsfeld, who had nothing but contempt for anyone who might know more than him or might think differently. But in his imposture of self-justification posing as regret, remorse, acknowledgment and responsibility, he was a worthy precursor to Rumsfeld et al, whose recent public "regrets" over the violations of the Geneva Conventions have a distinctly McNamara-esque feel.


"He was in a difficult position, opposing the president and generals."

Have you seen "The Fog of War"? Listen to the telephone transcript of him discussing strategy in Vietnam with LBJ. Contrast it with McNamara's account of how one of JFK's advisers steered Kenndey away from a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's a difference. McNamara didn't actively oppose the president and generals. He enabled them.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:40 AM on July 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Your outrage impresses me, and will no doubt shame me from seeking a nuanced view of a complex situation ever again.

Robert McNamara was, directly or indirectly, complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people; many of them - I think it's safe to say, a majority of them - were civilians.

Yes, that does create feelings of outrage in many people...


Uh... yeah, I know. This is what I'm talking about. It seems that to several people anything other than simple a regurgitation of "he's a bad man who did bad things" is the same as absolving him or ignoring the horrors he was involved with. I think the Vietnam era is a fascinating period, I marvel at it's complexities and the complexities of those involved: JFK, Ho Chi Minh, LBJ, McNamara and so on. None of those I just listed were "good" men, and blood is on all their hands. But they weren't purely evil men, they had admirable traits and they all reached out for a shinning vision- and they all fell so terribly far short of it.

I think complexity is something to be explored, not bludgeoned with simplistic outrage 40 years after the fact. I understand this is emotional for a lot of people, but I don't think we need to be reminded every five seconds of how ignorant and insensitive we are just because some of us don't think Robert McNamara was a satanic, inhuman monster who is irredeemably evil no matter what he ever did ever.

Outrage is fine. I feel outrage. But I also know that outrage is cheap, and no, I am not impressed by outrage. What someone actually does with their outrage on the other hand...
posted by spaltavian at 8:56 AM on July 6, 2009 [13 favorites]


l33tpolicywonk: McNamara deserves our criticism, but no more than Kennedy and LBJ do.

I think this is worth repeating. McNamara is certainly complicit in the deaths of thousands and millions, but so are many of the people that the left lionizes (not that anyone lionizes LBJ, but, y'know). McNamara was an asshole through and through-- but I am of the firm belief that so are we all, and to wish that McNamara's corpse get fucked to hell by syphilitic jackals, while it may make us feel better, aligns us with exactly that assholish part of McNamara that makes us so wish. The guy was complex, like everyone, and while I'm not about to forgive him for the firebombing of Tokyo, say, I am still of the opinion that discussion is better than dismissal, and criticism is better than indignation, no matter who we're talking about.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:11 AM on July 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


I remember attending a forum at the Institute of Politics when McNamara came out with his memoir re Vietnam war policy in 1995, In Retrospect. The audience's anger with and rage at McNamara and his policy decisions re Vietnam was almost palpable. I was afraid that someone was going to physically attack him, particularly when the question period began (around 1:10 in that video link above) and people who had fought and lost loved ones in Vietnam stood up. He was certainly a war criminal, but it took real courage to sit there and respond to their anguished questions. I doubt that Rumsfeld or Rice or the other major Bush Administration officials who made the Iraq War possible will ever show the same sort of bravery or conscience with respect to their war crimes.

I won't leave a dot, but what he did was still worth noting.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:17 AM on July 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


"I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values. That same must be said, to varying degrees, about President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, military advisor Maxwell Taylor, and many others. When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita. Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance." -- Robert McNamara

The degree of blame-laying, buck-passing, untruth, and ambiguity in the statement above is a pretty decent summation of McNamara the man, even decades after the Vietnam War ended. I don't mourn his death, but I also think that part of acknowledging history is recognizing the mark that people like McNamara make, and not merely glossing it over with doublespeak or losing sight of it in fury.
posted by blucevalo at 9:31 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


How is that statement an untruth, blucevalo? (not snark) Are you saying that those other people knew a lot about Indochina, and McNamara is deliberately obscuring it? Because it sounds to me like he's pointing out the fact that no one in the administration, himself included, knew WTF they were doing re: Viet Nam. I don't see that as buck-passing; I see it as an indictment of the hubris that American politicians display en masse with regard to other peoples and cultures.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:14 AM on July 6, 2009


..................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
posted by plep at 10:21 AM on July 6, 2009


(should be 58,261 plus 4 million Vietnamese civilians plus many other nationalities - North and South Vietnamese soldiers, Thai, Australian, South Korean etc.
posted by plep at 10:23 AM on July 6, 2009


A lot of those videos have a LOUD spanish translation. Just sayin.

Fog of War was a powerful flim. Tough character to judge.
posted by therubettes at 10:43 AM on July 6, 2009


There's a difference. McNamara didn't actively oppose the president and generals. He enabled them.

I agree, with one more comment - McNamara knew which side of his bread was buttered, so to speak. He relished the power of being defense secretary. So he did what his bosses wanted, even when he knew they were wrong - as he claims he did during the LBJ days - to maintain and enhance his position.

(should be 58,261 plus 4 million Vietnamese civilians plus many other nationalities - North and South Vietnamese soldiers, Thai, Australian, South Korean etc.)

Don't forget the Japanese too.

Keep in mind the WWII firebombing of Tokyo in a single raid killed more Japanese civilians than the entire number of American military personnel killed in Vietnam.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 11:01 AM on July 6, 2009


Over 58,000 American troops killed.
Somewhere between 50,000 and "several million" North Vietnamese killed.
Almost 40,000 South Vietnamese troops killed.
Somewhere between 500,000 and 2,000,000 South Vietnamese civilians killed.


Talk all you like about his contrition, his admission of mistakes and even his sincerity. This- over half a million deaths at the most conservative estimates- is McNamara's legacy.

Makes me want to believe in Hell. He'd surely have an all-access pass to the place.
posted by Monsters at 11:08 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's lots of blame to go around. If you read the Pentagon Papers and other books about the Vietnam War, the US government knew that the US couldn't win even before LBJ lied us into escalating the war after the Gulf of Tonkin "Incident."

The US should've lived up to the Atlantic Charter's promise of self-determination and supported Vietnam when they declared independence in September 1945, especially considering the two countries shared past as European colonies. Instead we backed France in the First Indochina War due to Cold War considerations and supplied most of the money and equipment. Vietnam beat France, which would have been a great time to realize that the Vietnamese wanted independence and could beat a modernized Western army. Instead we ignored the Geneva Accords provision for national elections because we knew the Viet Minh would win and supported the phony puppet South Vietnamese government.

Nixon deserves an extra-large helping of blame for sabotaging the Paris peace talks in 1968, saying he had a secret plan to end the war, and illegally expanding the war into Laos and Cambodia.

not that anyone lionizes LBJ

I greatly respect LBJ's work on civil rights. Signing the Civil Rights Act knowing that it would cost the Democrats the South, adopting "We Shall Overcome" in a speech on voting rights, and his other work on civil rights. His Great Society programs programs reflected a genuine compassion on civil rights and poverty. He could've been a great president if not for lying the US into an escalated Vietnam War.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:00 PM on July 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm going to add to the chorus of people who despise McNamara. Besides being conveniently remorseful three decades after it was too late to matter he was also a terrible choice to run the military at the time. He went along with a lot of the micro-managing of the armed forces that LBJ was infamous for and had has his own particular standout with an ill conceived, expensive and entirely worthless defense line that the brass and many soldiers nicknamed 'McNamara's Folly'.

Two of my relatives served in the Vietnam war (Sorry, police action) so I'm probably more then a little biased against the man because of that. However, you cannot read things like 'A Bright Shining Lie' and many of the other books on the conflict without realizing that McNamara along with LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger and many others would be, in a world with any sense of justice, shoved up against the wall and shot for their crimes.
posted by Vaska at 12:20 PM on July 6, 2009


I see a lot of big talk here about what McNamara deserves, but I do have to wonder how things would have been different had most of his critics been in his place. My suspicion is that things would have gone exactly the same if not worse. To put it another way, who of the people who might possibly have been Secretary of Defense at that time would have caused a significantly different outcome? Need I point out that he lost his job advocating for an end to the war *eight whole years* before it actually ended?

Having watched "The Fog of War" a couple of times, I have to wonder what else he might have been expected to do to get some respect from people here, short of self-immolation.
posted by pascal at 12:22 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, Pascal, for a start he could have resigned and spoken out against the administration instead of agreeing to carpet-bombing (What we still cutely called 'area bombing' back then) what were clearly civilian areas in North Vietnam.

And yeah self-immolation would have been fine considering what he took part of and only felt bad about decades later. Crying on film doesn't magically absolve someone of their actions.
posted by Vaska at 12:45 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I take a "nuanced" view of all sorts of people but when it comes down to it, this man ran a machine that killed a million people - no amount of cant about "duty" and "patriotism" can be anything but a tiny detail against the enormity of this fact, and you share in his illness to the degree that you believe it does, an illness that allowed him to kill cities full of people who had never offered him or anyone in America any harm, kill for reasons that turned out to be entirely delusional.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:48 PM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Vaska: Well, Pascal, for a start he could have resigned and spoken out against the administration instead of agreeing to carpet-bombing (What we still cutely called 'area bombing' back then) what were clearly civilian areas in North Vietnam.

I think what Pascal is asking is, assume that McNamara did all his crazy-ass McNamara shit in the 40s-70s. Now, given that he did all of those things, is he damned forever regardless of what else he does? Is there anything he could have done in the 90s or 00s that would keep people from wishing him to hell? Maybe not. Should there be?
posted by shakespeherian at 12:57 PM on July 6, 2009


...assume that McNamara did all his crazy-ass McNamara shit in the 40s-70s. Now, given that he did all of those things, is he damned forever regardless of what else he does?

Yes, he is damned forever. There's some number of murders on your account after which you become a monster and there's nothing that can ever redeem you. One might debate what this number was, but McNamara reached it a thousand times over.

Is there anything he could have done in the 90s or 00s that would keep people from wishing him to hell?

Sure, he could have stopped George W. Bush by any means necessary.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:06 PM on July 6, 2009


To the Brink of Eternity. .
posted by acro at 1:09 PM on July 6, 2009


For what it's worth, I don't believe McNamara deserves absolution for his role. But I do believe he deserves some respect for his actions since (and perhaps even some for his actions towards the end of his time as Secretary of Defense.) For all this talk of "crying on film 30 years later" I think it's notable that he was alone amongst his contemporaries in speaking out at all.

McNamara ran a machine, but he was also part of one. There is an awful lot of blame to go around for Vietnam, and I do have to wonder if singling out figures like McNamara for hate is in part about denial of the fact that ultimately, America in its entirely shares the blame.
posted by pascal at 1:12 PM on July 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


It was the NVA that expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia and that other than B52 raids on NVA supply lines and command centres US troops were only allowed about 20 miles into either country specifically to perform strategic reconnaissance and bomb damage assessment on NVA military targets.

I don't have a horse in this race but some of the assumptions people make with regards to the Vietnam conflict have little to no basis in reality. In other news, war is bad obviously.
posted by longbaugh at 1:14 PM on July 6, 2009


singling out figures like McNamara for hate is in part about denial of the fact that ultimately, America in its entirely shares the blame.

Ah, thus no war crimes trials, ever, for anyone! Very clever bit of reasoning! "It's a fair cop, but society is to blame."

Why don't we start with the people on top, charge them with the war crimes that we know they have committed, and then work our way down? That would be a very good way for America to expiate some small portion of the blame that accrues to it over decades of foreign wars and covert operations.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:21 PM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Nice straw man you have there, regarding war crimes trials. But as far as I am aware, no-one has ever seriously proposed trying McNamara - can you show otherwise?

In support of the point I was actually making: most Americans supported the war while McNamara was in office.
posted by pascal at 1:32 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


What I'm wondering is how much McNamara's actions were just a mirror for the whims and wishes of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Would any other appointed secretary of defense have done pretty much the same thing, given the WWII/Cold War military tactics of the time and the overzealous confidence of American government in general? I'm not trying to make a point but rather figure out if McNamara is just a convenient scapegoat.
posted by crapmatic at 1:40 PM on July 6, 2009


[M]ost Americans supported the war while McNamara was in office.

That makes it neither legal nor right. The German people supported the Kaiser's foray into France, as they did twenty-five years later. Didn't stop war crimes trials in the latter case.
posted by John of Michigan at 2:04 PM on July 6, 2009


Bob NcNamara strikes me as the person who would have established the practice of totting up lethal car accidents due to particular defects in Ford cars and ran expected value analyses on them to determine how many deaths would trigger a safety recall as opposed to settling out of court. I don't know whether he was but I wouldn't be surprised.
In the Office of Statistical Control, he precisely calculated the sorties and bomb loads required to generate the firestorms Curtis LeMay wanted in Japan's largest concentations of civilian populations.
I can't find the exact source, but from The Fog of War, McNamara recounted Lemay's wondering whether, if they lost the war, they would be executed as war criminals.
posted by nj_subgenius at 3:01 PM on July 6, 2009


Your outrage impresses me, and will no doubt shame me from seeking a nuanced view of a complex situation ever again.

I think complexity is something to be explored, not bludgeoned with simplistic outrage 40 years after the fact. I understand this is emotional for a lot of people...


Outrage is fine. I feel outrage. But I also know that outrage is cheap...

When taking a nuanced view tends toward the mitigation of justified outrage, I begin to feel uncomfortable.

I agree that it's not as simple as "good riddance," insofar as there's a very complicated story to be told about the war and the man. (Incidentally, I imagine that the poster who said "good riddance" would agree with that much.) But when you lay it all out in hindsight, nothing emerges from that complex situation that should lessen or qualify anyone's outrage at what happened. I just don't see why lasting outrage isn't the most apt thing to settle on when evaluating McNamara.
posted by Beardman at 3:25 PM on July 6, 2009


nj_subgenius: the story about Lemay is in the NYT obit linked in the OP, along with McNamara conceding that he was probably right. I agree with a lot of what you say here - and I suspect that much of McNamara's change of mind on Vietnam was due to concluding that the previous plan could not work, rather than moral qualms.

John of Michigan: I didn't say it made it legal or right. But it does muddy the question of blame quite a bit, don't you think? Especially since, unlike the Kaiser, the Kennedy/LBJ adminstrations were the elected agents of the people.
posted by pascal at 4:03 PM on July 6, 2009


It was the NVA that expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia

Sure, the NVA were there first with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but as an American citizen I'm more concerned about Nixon's illegal bombing Cambodia, invading Cambodia, and backing South Vietnam's invasion of Laos, all of which were illegal under US law.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:04 PM on July 6, 2009


I think McNamara, like the rest of us, was human, and thus fallible.

I do not think his later actions somehow 'make up' for his earlier actions, but then I don't really believe that life is a see-saw with humanity constantly teetering towards damnation or salvation.

I do think the lack of empathy shown for McNamara and the choices he faced is somewhat ironic given that people are accusing him of a lack of empathy. And I believe that it's very easy to cast the first stone in a different era, in a different position.

He did some truly reprehensible and tragic things, he also did some worthwhile and excellent things. Neither cancels out the other, but at least he developed the empathy, the humanity, to interrogate his actions - an activity we are all incapable of at times, with far lower stakes for self belief and actions.

There - but for about 100 IQ points - I think, could go many of us, and I hope we would have at least the same capacity for regret, recrimination, and some degree of atonement.

.
posted by smoke at 4:38 PM on July 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


I do think the lack of empathy shown for McNamara and the choices he faced is somewhat ironic given that people are accusing him of a lack of empathy.

Yeah, let he who hasn't killed hundreds of thousands cast the first stone.

---> .
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:19 PM on July 6, 2009


Most of you don't know what the hell you are talking about.
posted by Senator at 5:24 PM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can't find the exact source, but from The Fog of War, McNamara recounted Lemay's wondering whether, if they lost the war, they would be executed as war criminals.

He discusses this in the Fog of War. From the link above:

"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. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

What I'm wondering is how much McNamara's actions were just a mirror for the whims and wishes of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Would any other appointed secretary of defense have done pretty much the same thing, given the WWII/Cold War military tactics of the time and the overzealous confidence of American government in general? I'm not trying to make a point but rather figure out if McNamara is just a convenient scapego
at.

True. I agree many within the US polity at that late 1950's/early 1960's were eager to confront communism after the frustrations of losing China, stalemate in Korea, and the dual frustrations of the Bay of Pigs and not fighting the USSR at the Cuban Missile Crisis, constrasting these defeats & stalemates with the triumphs of WWII.

But keep in mind that after Korea, many people in the establishment were wary of a 2nd asian land war. Eisenhower was cold towards direct US intervention in Vietnam to help the french. MacArthur, late in his life, warned of the dangers of the Vietnam conflict. Within the Pentagon there was the 'never again' club which vowed to not get involved in a land war in asia unless they had permission to use nukes (basically they're either there to fight WWIII or they're not getting involved). As such it wasn't the case that, no one could foresee that Vietnam would become a quagmire. A more independent-thinking SoD might have opposed escalation. But indeed he might not have been SoD in that case.

He did some truly reprehensible and tragic things, he also did some worthwhile and excellent things. Neither cancels out the other, but at least he developed the empathy, the humanity, to interrogate his actions - an activity we are all incapable of at times, with far lower stakes for self belief and actions.

Well, in reading The Reckoning by David Halberstam, which covers McNamara's days at Ford, McNamara comes across as a thoroughly political man, conniving and dissembling to achieve power, and making it clear to his underlings that they must conform to his reality in the service of his ambition, with integrity not a factor.

And as I alluded to in an earlier post, in watching The Fog of War, I do not feel that he ever truly grasped the magnitude of his actions. I did not sense *any* empathy for the thousands who were on the recieving end of the bombing campaigns he orchestrated.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 5:26 PM on July 6, 2009


I'm sure he was at that time ThermonuclearJT, I was thinking more specifically of his work at the World Bank, where he truly was instrumental in doing a lot of good. For those interested, check out the World Bank's Obit.
posted by smoke at 5:33 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Most of you don't know what the hell you are talking about.

You forgot to add Metafilter: to the front of that.
posted by Beardman at 6:28 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


i'm not sure what to think.

.
posted by brandz at 7:43 PM on July 6, 2009


in his memory, i'm going to read this book again: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Which illustrates very well how much more heroic actions can be if they are timely. And how effective. Analyst for McNamara writes report. No one pays attention. Analyst figures out they already knew everything, and still continue failing policies. Analyst releases report, many things follow: As a response to the leaks, the Nixon administration began a campaign against further leaks and against Ellsberg personally. Aides Egil Krogh and David Young under John Ehrlichman's supervision created the "White House Plumbers," which would later lead to the Watergate burglaries.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:03 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Most of you don't know what the hell you are talking about.

And Robert McNamara did?

I do think the lack of empathy shown for McNamara and the choices he faced is somewhat ironic given that people are accusing him of a lack of empathy. And I believe that it's very easy to cast the first stone in a different era, in a different position.

There are times when "empathy" is an overrated and overused word.
posted by blucevalo at 8:22 PM on July 6, 2009


Joseph Galloway: "Well, the aptly named Robert Strange McNamara has finally shuffled off to join LBJ and Dick Nixon in the 7th level of Hell. McNamara was the original bean-counter — a man who knew the cost of everything but the worth of nothing."
posted by blucevalo at 8:22 PM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've heard Chomsky claim that around the middle of the war there was a panel of intellectual luminaries who met and discussed Vietnam and concluded that war is a mistake because it will cost too much in terms of expense and US lives. According to him, not a single voice mentioned Vietnamese losses. His point was that if Vietnamese losses were the same but the war cost us 5% of what it did in money and US soldiers' lives, virtually everyone who had any power or was anywhere near decision making here at the time, including top ranks of the army, government, journalists, professors, businessmen were exclusively concerned about the cost to us. So, if he's right (I don't know if he is), the argument against McNamara is that he's immoral because he was not smart enough to make the war 95% cheaper, or was not smart enough to see that it can't be made 95% cheaper by anyone.
posted by rainy at 9:01 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Err, what I was trying to say there: "if Vietnamese losses were the same but war cost us 5% of what it did, ... , all of these would be 100% happy with the way the war is going."
posted by rainy at 9:03 PM on July 6, 2009


Speaking of war criminals, nice interview with Henry Kissinger, including comments on Obama, Versailles, etc....

SPIEGEL: Do you think it was helpful for Obama to deliver a speech to the Islamic world in Cairo? Or has he created a lot of illusions about what politics can deliver?

Kissinger: Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he's got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven't gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.

posted by Rumple at 9:31 PM on July 6, 2009


Digression, but seriously, bloody Kissinger. It's all just a game and pieces for him. This typifies McNamara's thinking at his worst, however unlike some in this thread, I think McNamara was also able to if not overcome, at least analyse this thinking for its flaws.
posted by smoke at 9:36 PM on July 6, 2009


I'm Seconding the comparison to Ellsberg, who worked for McNamara, had a similar level of access and similar moral position, but had the integrity to act on his convictions.

I think the reason "the Fog of War" makes so many of us nauseated is that the movie is a confession, but a confession without culpability. McNamara is gloating in his confession, still holding his position of power over all of us. and the interviewer/filmaker is too gutless to ask him real questions of culpability.

sure, McNamara looks like some kind of angel against a Kissinger or a Cheney, but compare him to Ellsberg, the positive example.

interview link here

The Responsibility of the Insider

What then, briefly, is the responsibility of an individual in a democracy on matters of war and peace like we've been discussing?

Well, let's narrow it down to the responsibilities of people with inside information as I had, as tens of thousands of people had, much the same information I had, and the same convictions I had: that we were on a wrong course and that it ought to end. There were also, of course, others who somehow believed in what we were doing, often because they were new to the problem. But people who had been with it for a while found it very hard to believe that we were on a good course. People like McNamara, who understood years before they got out of office that what we were doing was hopeless and was resulting in deaths on both sides that served no useful United States or other human purpose. What could they have done? What should they have done? Did they do all that they could have done?

I can say very briefly in terms of what I've just said about my own decision. I think that what I learned about what I ought to do applies not only to them at the time but to people in the future. First, that we are fortunate in this country, in our Constitution, in having not just an executive in charge of war and peace matters (as it likes to think that it is in charge), but actually a Congress which has the constitutional responsibility both to declare war and to finance, to control the budget, and has many, many methods for actually opposing executive policy on a matter of war and peace. Any of those executive officials, I'll take McNamara as an example, could have or could in the future, in a situation like Iran - Contra for example, think of informing Congress, with or without the approval of the president. They would do this, by the way, with almost no legal risk. There are many ways they could do this with no legal liability. In fact, to the contrary, it often involves simply telling the truth instead of committing perjury, which is what they actually do do. So it involves obeying the law rather than violating the law, and obeying the Constitution. But it's in a way that they hardly think of doing because it involves crossing the man who appointed them. They could then, take McNamara, could have encouraged hearings by Fulbright, could have told him what questions to ask, could have provided witnesses for him. Could have testified himself truthfully instead of falsely under oath, which is what he did do, and could have provided the Pentagon Papers in a timely fashion. Could have given him the documents, told him what documents to ask for. In short, work with Congress to change the situation. That's a very powerful and very practical way, which almost nobody ever dreams of doing. It would certainly keep them from ever being hired by a future Republican or Democratic president. But, as I say, there is life outside the executive branch.

Second, they really could conceive of taking risks with their own career that are comparable to the risks they routinely ask of draftees and volunteers that they are sending to war. They could contemplate, in other words, paying a price in their own lives by telling the truth, by informing the public, by acting conscientiously, in a committed way, outside the executive branch to tell the truth, to inform the public. Again, at great cost to their future careers but a cost that they should be willing to pay. In short, they would find that they had much more power as individuals than they imagine they have if they were willing to pay a price in their own lives.

Dr. Ellsberg, thank you very much for joining us today for this quite fascinating and morally uplifting Conversation with History.

Thank you very much.

And thank YOU very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

posted by eustatic at 10:14 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


eustatic: and the interviewer/filmaker is too gutless to ask him real questions of culpability.

I'm going to have to disagree here. Part of what makes Fog of War a particularly good film is that (with maybe one exception) it strains to allow the man to speak for himself, and yet manages to create a realistic, complex, nuanced picture of a very polarizing figure. If Morris had started pointing at McNamara and saying 'But what about the millions of dead Vietnamese civilians,' it might have made for a better in-your-face this-guy-is-bad documentary, but it would have ultimately been less humanizing, and therefore less instructive. The more one is able to empathize with McNamara, the more one is able to see similarities with him, which helps us to understand the capacity for monstrosity and evil in all of us. Which, IMO, can significantly reduce its occurrence.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:07 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


it has been a few years since i watched Fog of War, but i do think i remember a moment when Morris is asking him a question, and there is a knife-edge level of strain in his [Morris's] voice, like you can tell he is just trying to keep his cool as McNamara clam's up...That moment is the whole movie for me, and the whole story of his Vietnam career....a smart guy who knows evil, who knows he has been a part of evil, and shuts up in order to keep his place in the game secure.

which is the opposite of what Ellsberg did. (i don't work for his publisher or anything, it is just that his book has had more impact on how i view governments at war than anything i've ever read in my life.)
posted by th3ph17 at 10:05 PM on July 7, 2009


« Older She did all things enthusiastically, but nothing w...  |  The Onion is funny because it ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments