Saturday, July 04, 2009


Watching The Fog of War for the second time around, I couldn't help but wonder: is this watery-eyed man in Rumsfield's future? Twenty, or so years, down the road will he subject himself to hours of interviews on his many errors in the Iraq war?

As of today confirmed deaths in the Iraq War stand at just over 4,300, a far cry from the over 25,000 who died during McNamara's seven-year term as Secretary of Defense. This isn't to say that fewer deaths should lay more lightly on Rumsfield's conscience, but rather that, as much as we make easy comparisons between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, those of us who are for the first time grappling with a war with significant casualties have no concept of the ultimate blood cost of a protracted, and ultimately futile, conflict.

The Fog of War, and McNamara himself, frustrates our need for a complete mea culpa. In so many ways he remained to the end a Washington bureaucrat, rationalizing at the same time he chided those who rationalized war, and, at times, flatly refusing to address the issue of his own guilt. However, throughout the documentary he numbers the dead, numbers them and draws comparisons to the populations of American cities. For a cracker-jack statistician the way he recalls those numbers speaks of a mind who never stops seeing the loss of life, never stops wondering how many had to die.

McNamara strikes me as someone who desperately wanted forgiveness and yet was enough of a realist not to ask for it. Yet, he spent his years following his time attacking poverty, the nuclear arms race, and, ultimately, the culture of war itself. It's difficult to know how to weigh the actions of his later years with those of his sojourn at the Pentagon; for at the end of the day how do you weigh a few good works against the thousands of lives either lost or irrevocably damaged by your actions?

Atonement works great in theology but it is pretty much impossible in real life. Asking regular human beings to have enough grace to forgive on that scale is too much. So I don't want to make excuses nor suggest that in attempting to atone for his crimes McNamara deserves a break. At the same time in measuring him against others of his ilk--his contemporary Henry Kissinger for one and those who followed, Cheney and Rumsfield-- McNamara's dedication to atoning for his crimes raises him above those others merely in the recognition of having done egregious wrongs. That recognition seems such a small thing yet is so rare amongst those who recklessly drive us into deadly and morally compromising situations. In our time we are faced either with silence (Colin Powell) or a flat denial of any wrongdoing. Cheney's callousness is so despicable as to suggest a certain joy in the chaos he creates. It shouldn't be so much to ask for those in power to recognize that their actions have consequences. It shouldn't, but it is.

McNamara offered himself up as a cautionary tale in 2003, the same year we invaded Iraq, possibly in the vain hope that the mess we're in could be avoided. I think that all by itself, while many might say it is 40 years too late, is worthy of our consideration if not our absolution.

1 comment:

red rabbit said...

Adolph Reed comments via email:

"Well, maybe I'm stuck too much in the moment of McNamara's crimes against humanity, but I think in a just world he would've suffered the same fate as his predecessor bureaucrats of genocide at Nuremberg. He shouldn't have been around to atone.

"The bloodlessness and smugness with which he and his colleagues ordered murder on a mass scale, often for the most fleetingly "tactical" reasons, including purely for propaganda linked to the news cycle—as catalogued carefully in Marilyn Young's Vietnam Wars—dwarfs many times over whatever gestures of atonement he's offered since then. (And the World Bank's record as an antipoverty agency leaves much to be desired -- before, during, and after his tenure -- in any event.)

"Again, it may well be a matter of being stuck in that moment, but the penitence seems easy, cheap and hollow to me. When he was president, Jimmy Carter mainly paved the way for Reagan, both rhetorically and in his policy course. When he was out of office, and had no power for real impact, he discovered social, or at least Christian, justice and has put himself forward to address large problems on which he can have no real impact. Clinton and Gore have done the same, though in Bill's case knocking down huge speaking fees in the process. Even Kerry, Archduke of Putzdom, strains toward the same posture. This "I didn't do the right thing when I could have had some impact, so let me try to make up for it now when I can't" move is rationalized as "statesmanship," but just seems like what liberals do in their desire to have it both ways, to serve the ruling class's nastiest interests and feel clean and good about themselves when it's time to face the consequences and sequelae of their actions. In McNamara's case it also smells a little like an extended, bureaucratically designed version of Lee Atwater's deathbed confession, a ploy to die with a good conscience. He should have died with his heels dangling in the air.

But then, as I said, maybe I'm just stuck in the moment."