Monday, 6 July 2009

Robert McNamara: Long Time Going

The great American playwright David Rabe once protested the labelling of his magisterial Vietnam Plays (Streamers, Sticks and Bones, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel) as ‘anti-war’, arguing that plays about unruly youth, for instance, were not considered ‘anti-youth’; and that war, like youth, was ‘permanently a part of the eternal human pageant.’ A medical corpsman in Vietnam, Rabe knew of what he spoke, albeit not so comprehensively as Robert McNamara, who has died at the age of 93. ‘I’m not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war’, McNamara told the filmmaker Errol Morris a few years ago. ‘We’re not going to change human nature anytime soon.’
McNamara lived long enough to revisit the byways of his awful career for a new generation perhaps less familiar with the name and face of the notorious cerebrate/’wonk’ who prosecuted the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson, thus developing the intentions of John F. Kennedy. But once propelled to the zenith of the Pentagon, McNamara’s celebrated intellect crashed, as anybody’s would in the face of a mission so wrong-headed as Vietnam.
Nearly 40 years later he would insist that he came to see that war as a hopeless endeavour before his Pentagon peers, but still insisted upon the seriousness of the high Cold War stakes of the age. The McNamara of the 21st century also showed an interest in counterfactual history that befitted both a scholar and a man with compendious causes for regret. (Naturally, he suggested that had Kennedy lived, the US would have smartly extricated itself from Vietnam.)
McNamara’s attempted rehabilitation also received a certain late-life boost from the Coalition occupation of Iraq, as he developed a critique of US unilateralism that was highly palatable to the critics of Bush’s war. ‘If we can’t persuade nations of comparable values of the merit of our cause’, he told Errol Morris, ‘then we’d better re-examine our reasons.’ McNamara himself, though, seemed to have done only a certain amount of self-re-examination and no more. In his 90s he was not, one sensed, a broken man, but rather someone who still believed that ‘tough choices’ – the tough consequences of which are felt by other people – are the unhappy lot of truly substantive individuals.

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