Monday, July 06, 2009

Shed No Tears

Robert Macnamara is dead.

They say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but in this case we'll make an exception. Macnamara, for the very youngest of our readers, was Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was, very largely, the man responsible for America's prosecution of a war in Viet Nam -- a war which cost 58,000 American lives, not to mention millions of Vietnamese. Yes -- millions. And a war which Macnamara himself concluded, eventually, could not be won and should not have been fought.

It's not that he was a bloodthirsty monster. He wasn't. He was an economist and an auto executive -- a technocrat or, to put it plainly, a bean counter. At least that's the usual spin. But there was more to the war, and to Macnamara's work to make it happen and keep it going, than mere numbers -- if only because the numbers were so terrible. A man truly driven by cost-benefits analysis would have pulled out by 1965.

We suspect that Macnamara was driven by two demonic forces. First, there was his own pride; the man had been a colonel during WWII, a Harvard professor, and a stunningly successful president of Ford -- all by his early 40s. We have to assume that he was one of those irritating overachievers who simply can't live with failure, meaning that they can't recognize the limitations imposed by their own humanity. That's called hubris, and people who paid attention in their Word Civ were supposed to know about it. (So much for Cal Berkeley, by the way).

Second, there was the lunacy of modern Manichaeism -- by which we mean, specifically, the postwar division of the world into East and West, Communist and Anti-communist, Red and Red, White, and Blue. Not that Stalin was a good guy, or that the worst errors of Roosevelt, Churchill or (even) Truman made them in any way his moral equivalents. Communism was wretched, and deserved worse than it got. But the sleep of reason -- by which we mean reactive anticommunism -- bred its own monsters: think of McCarthy and the blacklists, or the (seemingly endless) Cuban embargo. Of these, the war in Viet Nam was infinitely the most monstrous.

There is another effect of the Viet Nam conflict which needs to be mentioned as well. Even though American politics have long been bipartisan, and often fiercely so, and even though the anticommunist right was already pretty fierce, the war was still a colossal wedge, splitting American society. It drove the Left from protest marches to domestic terrorism, and forced the Right into a permanent defensive crouch. It created some caricatures and reinforced others, providing a treasury of public postures and rhetorical tropes that are recycled to this day.

In a sense, Viet Nam created everything that came later: not just the self-doubting "malaise" of the 1970s or the self-righteous preening of all the Boomers who pretend they were at Woodstock, but also Watergate (among the conspirators' crimes, remember, was breaking into the files of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the DoD's secret history of the war). Reagan exploited the growing national division skillfully; Clinton -- despite his centrism -- was nearly undone by it; Bush Jr., with vastly less skill than Reagan or Clinton, attempted to exploit the same cultural and political divide, and in the course of his bumbling gave us Nam II.

So if Viet Nam created modern America, and Macnamara created Viet Nam -- well, we know who to blame. Not to mention that his damn company made lousy cars.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

He wouldn't have had this war all by himself. Plenty of blame to go around. I heard a piece on the radio yesterday about his book and how he admitted the mistakes he and others made in the war. So then the question was asked, "why didn't he speak up against the Iraq war?"

Funny that the word verification for this comment is DEVISTR.

Anonymous said...

yes, plenty of blame to go around in this broken vow of ahimsa, and yes he did admit his mistakes albeit far, far too late so that in itself might make his thoughts on iraq or any other spot suspect.