“The Ghosts of Those Unlived Lives”

Robert McNamara’s death reminded me of one of my favorite editorials ever, from the New York Times a decade and a half back. The occasion was McNamara’s release of his Vietnam memoir In Retrospect. In the book, he confesses that he too thought the war was a tragic mistake, but felt hamstrung from speaking out by loyalty to the administration he served. The editorialist would have none of his apology. I don’t think I’ve ever read a finer example of tightly controlled, exquisitely expressed contempt. I’ll quote parts of it here:

Comes now Robert McNamara with the announcement that he has in the fullness of time grasped realities that seemed readily apparent to millions of Americans throughout the Vietnam War. At the time, … Millions of loyal citizens concluded that the war was a militarily unnecessary and politically futile effort to prop up a corrupt Government that could neither reform nor defend itself….

It is important to remember how fate dispensed rewards and punishment for Mr. McNamara’s thousands of days of error. Three million Vietnamese died. Fifty-eight thousand Americans got to come home in body bags. Mr. McNamara, while tormented by his role in the war, got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the Vineyard….

His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.

Mr. McNamara says he weeps easily and has strong feelings when he visits the Vietnam Memorial. But he says he will not speak of those feelings. Yet someone must, for that black wall is wide with the names of people who died in a war that he did not, at first, carefully research or, in the end, believe to be necessary. .

Everyone should see Errol Morris’s mesmerizing documentary about McNamara, “The Fog of War.” It’s the portrait of a reflective, self-aware, “civilized” 20th-century man who knows that through his long career, he’s been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. No, his regret could not have been huge enough to balance the books, but you can’t doubt that through his long life he periodically experienced something very like Hell. I’ve never seen a movie quite like it.


Posted on Jul 7, 2009 in Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Uncategorized | 5 Comments