To free himself from three decades of accumulated guilt and simultaneously flail and defend himself, McNamara offers the inside story from the man who ran the Vietnam War under the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies (1961-8). Both his horror of war itself and the response of the anti-war movement motivated this former Harvard genius and Ford Motor Company CEO to speak out. But the negative reaction to the Vietnam War, more than the war itself, pushed McNamara to let the outsiders have a peek at the elite decision-making world.
McNamara’s film and literary memoir, I fear, may only increase that cynicism and contempt. I wonder how parents of dead soldiers or civilians, Vietnamese, American and Iraqi, as that scenario rings with repetition, feel when they read that as early as 1966 McNamara had become “increasingly skeptical of our ability to achieve our political objectives in Vietnam through military means.” Nevertheless, he continues, “this did not diminish my involvement in the shaping of Vietnam policy”
Vietnam was “McNamara’s War” as much as Iraq is Rumsfeld’s. But thanks to the movie, we know that McNamara has a strong emotional side – unlike Rummy, whose distorted haiku speech and irritable manner create the image of a thick-skinned executive.
McNamara sensed that his soul was at stake, but the glimmers of humane feelings that he allowed himself to acknowledge confronted a stronger, deeper commitment to servicing power, an “obligation” that vitiated his ability to see right and wrong.
He also owed the President his business assessment: the Vietnam War was unprofitable. Ironically, McNamara used this formula to arrive at his moral judgment: unprofitable means wrong. The brilliant accountant and business visionary, however, could not see demarcate clear moral lines between his “logic of figures” and life and death.
LeMay, by his own words, was a psychopathic killer, a man eager to use nuclear weapons against Cuba and the Soviet Union in the 1962 missile crisis, a commander who didn’t hesitate to risk the lives of his own pilots during World War II by having them fly at lower altitudes thus exposing themselves to anti aircraft and fighter attack in order to increase their accuracy.
McNamara presents himself as a moral man. Among his axioms of faith was the assumption that the United States undertook overseas actions only for noble purposes. Through this obfuscating lens, he could not – and cannot — see himself as an imperialist. Since he served the elected president of a democracy, how could he possibly make imperial policies?
I’m glad he wrote the book and appeared in the film. His personal testimony dramatizes the deceit of the past and should make those in the present generation very skeptical about all Bush claims about Iraq.
Indeed, he still maintains that “the United States of America fought in Vietnam for eight years for what it believed to be good and honest reasons … to protect our security, prevent the spread of totalitarian communism, and promote individual freedom and political democracy.”
McNamara might write a guide book on the morality of power – an oxymoron? He simply blurred distinctions between intentions and poor war strategy. As Defense Secretary for seven years he simply ignored the incongruities between Washington’s trite expression of noble goals and the bestiality in Vietnam “required” to achieve them. He pressed on, as he admits “ravaging a beautiful country and sending young Americans to their death year after year, because they [the war planners] had no other plan.”
Yes, lack of courage! Top government officials apply a logic of intervention that insulates them, places a wall between questions they should ask and answer before ordering bombing missions against cities–in Vietnam or Iraq.
In his book, McNamara strives for grace, citing T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “And last the rending pain of reenactment/ Of all that you have done and been; the shame/ Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/ Of things ill done and done to others’ harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue.”
Landau’s new film, SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE is available through Cinema Guild 1-800-723-5522. His newest book is THE PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH’ KINGDOM. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the institute for Policy Studies. His essays appear in Spanish on www.rprogreso.com