Tuesday, 7 July 2009

“We were wrong”

An object lesson in the value and the limitations of intelligence, management disciplines, and analytical skill, Robert S. McNamara, died on Monday in Washington. The New York Times' obituary makes salutary reading, but if one is going to look at only one thing about McNamara, it should be Errol Morris' wonderful documentary The Fog of War.

I have never understood people describing McNamara as unrepentant and cold. To see him in Fog—apparently, if you were in the right meetings, to see him even in 1968—was to see a man haunted by the hubris, miscalculation, folly ... by the sheer wrongness of so much of what America did in Vietnam; of what he did, as Secretary of Defense, first for Kennedy and then for Johnson, in prosecuting the war; even for aspects of his service during WWII, including what he freely describes as war crimes (he was involved in the fire-bombing of Japanese cities).

Apart from the general cultural anger about Vietnam, and against its symbols—the NYT's most reliably angry columnist has predictably chosen to vent on this occasion—I suspect McNamara's reflections attracted such opprobium because they didn't conform to American norms of repentance. There was no religiosity. There was no talk of transformation or renewal. What there was, was a will to understand, and to draw lessons from past failings.

Lord knows, those lessons were painful enough.

There's also an unpleasant piece of generational conflict at work here: a lack of sympathy with the way McNamara's loyalty to his masters stands in conflict with the all-telling, all-denouncing ethic of younger men. Pensioned off from the DoD for losing faith in the war and urging the President to rethink it, McNamara didn't become an anti-war activist. He got on with running the World Bank as best he knew. And when he did turn again to Vietnam, he did it as a civil servant: asking, what did we do wrong; what can we learn from it. There was a dispassion to the analysis, as there should be. It doesn't mean the countless dead didn't keep him awake at night.

At the risk of an obvious statement, McNamara didn't publicly atone for his sins because he couldn't. (Where would one even start?) An unvarnished “we were wrong” should be respected for what it is. Beyond that is between him and God.

UPDATE: Errol Morris has written a fine piece on McNamara in context


Natalie Swann said...

Thanks for these reflections. The Fog of War was one of the most profoundly thought provoking films I've ever seen, but I'm not sure I could have articulated why quite so well as you have here.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Hey Natalie: thanks for the feedback. It was a very good film, wasn't it. I saw it in the cinema in the US in 2004, when it was very timely: as a rebuke to the failure-to-learn of the administration at the time, and also (I thought) to the tone and the moral overconfidence of the popular opposition. Both of which, as a resident foreigner on a university campus with a military tradition, were rather on my mind.

My late father was of McNamara's generation (just a few years younger) and had, if pressed sufficiently hard, mixed feelings about the moral entailments of his modest WWII service. He was a research engineer (and then quite junior) rather than a planner or manager, but some of the issues were common. If I speak feelingly about the dangers of self-indulgent criticism of an older generation by a younger, let's just say that I speak from some personal experience.