Samantha Power: McNamara's Lessons

Roundup: Historians' Take

Samantha Power, writing in the NYT (Dec. 14, 2003):

SOMETIME in the mid-1960's, the Vietnam War became known as "McNamara's War." In the seven years Robert S. McNamara served as Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon. B. Johnson, the United States commitment in Vietnam soared — in a soothingly gradual fashion — from fewer than a thousand Americans to just under half a million. Mr. McNamara, in turn, went from being heralded as a whiz kid to being hounded as a war monger. In 1965, a Quaker protester set himself on fire below Mr. McNamara's Pentagon office window. In 1967, antiwar activists tried to burn down the his vacation home in Aspen, Colo. And in 1972, an artist who spotted him on a ferry tried to heave him into the Atlantic Ocean.

A quarter of a century later, Mr. McNamara broke his silence, publishing "In Retrospect," his best-selling memoir. He asked how he and his fellow leaders could have pushed for a war he at last acknowledged was "wrong, terribly wrong." But after the deaths of three million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans, many saw Mr. McNamara's public reckoning as, at best, incommensurate with the carnage and at worst, dishonest and self-serving. In a stinging editorial in 1995, The New York Times dismissed his "prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late," contrasting the fates of the dead with that of Mr. McNamara, who, despite his torment, "got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the Vineyard."

The debate over Vietnam and the debate over Robert McNamara — debates that overlap, but that over the years have grown distinct — refuse to subside, partly because Mr. McNamara, now 87, refuses to go away. In "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," opening Friday, Errol Morris, the ingenious Cambridge-based director of such documentaries as "The Thin Blue Line" and "Mr. Death," has given Mr. McNamara a big-screen chance to reflect upon a career of watching fallible human beings like himself make decisions that imperil or extinguish human lives.

While Mr. McNamara uses the film to propagate the "lessons" of his six decades in public life, Mr. Morris has another agenda: to raise questions that are moral, timeless and rarely broached with such subtlety. How do decent men commit or abet evil acts? And once they have done so, how should they interact with their victims, live with their consciences and pass along their insights? It is the indefatigable relevance of these questions that keep Americans at once enthralled and repelled by Robert S. McNamara. And it is the long-standing aversion of American decision-makers to address past mistakes that has helped undermine the American standing around the world and has hindered our ability to learn from history.

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