Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert McNamara, ex Secretary of Defense, Dies

And with him, in some sense, the Vietnam War.

For perhaps, as Errol Morris remarks on Twitter, "McNamara was not the chief architect of the Vietnam War; the chief architect was Lyndon Johnson." But it wouldn't be a stretch to say that McNamara is the most deserving subject of Bob Dylan's Masters of War, and even less of a stretch to say that his were the hands that shaped the specific course of the war.

Indeed, it may be that Morris simply got too close. His brilliant film Fog of War humanizes – if such a thing is possible – the reality of the decisions that lead to a pointless, failed war. For better or worse, Morris does it by letting McNamara enumerate in his own words the lessons he learned during his term as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson.

Regardless of whether McNamara was the most directly responsible for that horror that haunted the 1960s, his death crystallizes a hard truth about our own times: I would take McNamara in a second over the warmongers of today. I'm sorry to see him go. The man was deeply rational, in such stark contrast to the mere ideology of the Bush era that it's breathtaking. You could say that McNamara's title, Secretary of Defense, fit him; when Donald Rumsfeld held the post, he might be better have been called Secretary of War.

That McNamara's death coincides with the Obama military's first push into Afghanistan is an opportunity to look back at how that paradigmatically rational Defense Secretary behaved. In doing his job well, he saved the lives of half the world. Yet how gravely, even backed with all the strength of intelligence and peaceful intentions, such an apparently rational man making apparently rational choices could lead the country awry.

And so, I leave you with McNamara himself, as presented by Errol Morris. There can be no better obituary than that. Truly, I cannot recommend this film more highly:

Rest in Peace, Robert McNamara.

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