Robert McNamara and Moonwalking

Well, I returned to the treadmill this morning. Thump. Thump. Thump. But things could be worse. At least I am sill on my feet and moving forward. And spending 50 minutes or so chasing the belt allows me to revisit all of the TV news stories from the night (and days) before. More people watched the Michael Jackson memorial yesterday than watched Obama’s inauguration in January. I heard that from one of the TV talking heads — and have no reason to doubt its accuracy. Too bad Prez O didn’t do the moonwalk. I digress.

And given the interest in MJ now that he is now longer moonwalking, it’s clear that no TV network is going to pass on the memorial festival. That’s OK. Clearly there is intense public interest — and that translates into ratings. In the midst of the MJ frenzy, however, I hope people at least noticed the death of another tragic national figure: Robert McNamara. My guess is that many who tuned in the memorial yesterday have no clue who McNamara was or the role he played in Vietnam. That’s too bad — because history tends to repeat itself.

Vietnam. It was called McNamara’s War — and as Secretary of Defense he was unwaivering in his public support for sending American soldiers to die in a lost cause — long after even he himself had concluded that the war couldn’t be won. Here’s from Bob Herbert, writing in The New York Times:

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?

Lessons learned from Vietnam? None.

No lessons learned from Vietnam. Nah. Don’t agree with that. We learned how easy it is for our elected officials to deceive the American people and lie to us. And we learned that again in Iraq.

Again, from Herbert’s column:

As The Times’s Tim Weiner pointed out in McNamara’s obituary, Congress authorized the war after President Johnson contended that American warships had been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. The attack never happened. As Mr. Weiner wrote, “The American ships had been firing at their own sonar shadows on a dark night.”

But McNamara, relying on intelligence reports, told Johnson that evidence of the attack was ironclad. Does this remind anyone of the “slam dunk” evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction?

More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam and some 2 million to 3 million Vietnamese. More than 4,000 Americans have died in Iraq, and no one knows how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Even as I was writing this, reports were coming in of seven more American G.I.’s killed in Afghanistan — a war that made sense in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but makes very little sense now.

We also learned that it takes a strong and effective news media to keep a check on government and military officials. David Halberstam wrote a defining book about the abuse of power during the Vietnam era, The Best and the Brightest. Take the time to read this book if you are at all interested in how so many incredibly smart men and women and do so many incredibly stupid, dangerous and unethical if not illegal things.

In an era when we are fixated on celebrities and moonwalking, we could use more journalists like David Halberstam. Why? Something tells me that Halberstam wouldn’t have been sitting yesterday glued to the TV, or trying to interview MJ’s pet chimp.

Not with America embroiled in two losing wars and still in the throes of an economic meltdown with nearly 10 percent unemployed.

And not when someone like Robert McNamara — seemingly the best and the brightest — can so dishonor himself and cause such great harm to so many.

McNamara’s legacy could have been much different — if he would have done the honorable thing and resigned, publicly surfacing his concerns about the war. Here’s from Jeffrey H. Smith, writing in The Washington Post:

When I worked with McNamara late in his life, I saw his great frustration that his message was not getting through. While he was concerned about his legacy, I believe his objectives went much deeper.

Senior officials should understand that if they disagree with a policy yet soldier on, they put their own credibility at risk. At the end of the day, that’s all any of us really have. Robert McNamara is often vilified, but he has much to teach us. We should listen.

Another lesson from Robert McNamara. The question is whether or not we will learn from it.

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2 responses to “Robert McNamara and Moonwalking

  1. Hey Rob,

    Hope you’re well. I was wondering if you have ever seen ‘The Fog of War,’ a 2005 documentary where McNamara recounts his life and respective roles in WWII, the Cuban Missle Crisis and Vietnam. I think the NY Times obit cited it several times in their piece.

    It’s a really a fascinating look at a brilliant man who seemed plagued by regret in his later years. Or, at least that’s how I interpreted it. Vietnam was a bit before my time.

    Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgA98V1Ubk8&feature=related

  2. Greg,

    Hi. I did see “The Fog of War.” It’s excellent. And I agree with you. McNamara was plagued by regret as he got older and withdrew from public life. My problem with him was that the regret was a little to self-serving. He had the opportunity to change history — but passed on it.

    Hope you are doing well and enjoying the summer.

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