Sunday, July 19, 2009

Robert McNamara - My last word

He died almost 2 weeks ago. Reams of obits have been published and now forgotten. A few bullet points stood out:

- A brilliant man. A "whiz" kid.
- Youngest Ford Motor Company President ever. Gave up $$ for public service summoned by JFK, head of the Camelot roundtable.
- Total confidence in quantitative method.
- Wanted to win in Vietnam.
- Lost faith in that policy but kept quiet and then years and years later said "I was wrong" and then tried to redeem himself at World Bank "fighting" world poverty.

Nearly all commentators left it at that personal level, implicitly giving him an absolution without exploring further the moral implications of what he had done. Afterall, he did say "sorry", didn't he, at least kind of? He actually never did say that.

Bob Herbert of the New York Times was closest to opening the pandora box in his sobering column. It should be read in full.

Here is one priceless excerpt:

"McNamara, it turns out, had realized early on that Vietnam was a lost cause, but he kept that crucial information close to his chest, like a gambler trying to bluff his way through a bad hand, as America continued to send tens of thousands to their doom. How in God’s name did he ever look at himself in a mirror"?

The word "God" was invoked.

The unexplored questions that jumped out of this paragraph are intuitively obvious: Was that war "just" in the eyes of God explored by Aristotle all the way down to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas?

If it was not a just war, as nearly everyone now believes it was not -- the war was based on the groundless thesis that if "We don't fight the war in Vietnam we will one day fight a billion Red Chinese in Los Angeles armed with nuclear weapons" in the immortal words of the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk -- then was it only McNamara who may not have been able to look at himself in a mirror?

If it was not a just war, would the precedent set by the US government in hanging WWII Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita for crimes committed by his troops in the Philippines apply to US leaders who prosecuted the war from JFK all the way to Richard Nixon?

Robert McNamara may have found peace with his God though many do not believe he ever did for reasons still unclear, how does one look in the eyes of those surviving family members who who lost over 4 million of their sons and daughters (adding up American and Vietnamese military and civilian lives) for mistakes made by a handful of American leaders? I am leaving out the "collateral" damage in Cambodia and Laos.

That's the question obit writers have missed or dismissed by design.

But that's really the only important relevant issue of moral responsibility. Do we need to wait for more years, decades, centuries for the future Aristotle's and Thomas Aquinas's to give it a proper airing before we can close the chapter on that war?

Oh, please don't even get me started on the Iraq war which, too, was based on premises that the war makers knew early on were untrue. Ah, yes, I can hear the same refrain: "If we don't fight them in Iraq, we will have to fight them in New York armed with nuclear weapons".

By the way, I absolutely love the folksy but crystal clear language Dean Rusk used to explain what the Domino Theory was. It put to shame those think tank types who wrote erudite books and learned articles justifying that Theory in obscure jargons.

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