‘MOBY DICK'' is the saga of the American soul, a cosmic contest with an "intangible malignity.'' The sea monster was "the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies . . . all the subtle demonisms of life and thought, all evil . . . all the general rage and hate'' felt by the human race "from Adam down.'' Onto this enemy, Captain Ahab "as if his chest had been a mortar . . . burst his hot heart's shell.''
Ahab's corpse wound up lashed to the hump of his nemesis, but what if Herman Melville had ended his novel differently? What if, in defeat, Ahab had been cursed to survive for decades more, wandering the back alleys and waterfronts of whaling cities, an embodiment of impotence and hubris, a living figure less of tragedy than pathos? Then the story would have been not Ahab's, but Robert S. McNamara's.
A Washington cliche refers to the Pentagon as the Great White Whale, the leviathan on the Potomac. Yet that something monstrous had indeed been loosed there was hinted at in 1949 when the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, fell into a catatonic state at his desk, only to commit suicide a few weeks later.
The Pentagon's malignity had been made tangible by the new atomic bomb, which contorted Forrestal's stress, but when he died the US nuclear arsenal stood at less than 200. By the time McNamara took office, that figured had mushroomed to nearly 20,000 - an insane escalation unrelated to the vastly inferior Soviet accumulation. McNamara saw his first task as taming this nuclear monster. Instead, he presided over its further mutation, spurring massive growth. He spent the rest of his life railing against the very nuclear madness he had helped unleash.
McNamara had played a role in the invention of strategic bombing during World War II, and when it came to the Vietnam War, he firmly believed that bombing would be key to American victory. Proven wrong, he became so hinged that President Johnson feared his secretary of defense would end as "another Forrestal.'' At McNamara's last top-level meeting, he went ballistic; "The goddamned bombing campaign,'' he screamed, "it's been worth nothing, it's done nothing, they've dropped more bombs than in all of Europe in all of World War II, and it hasn't done a (expletive deleted) thing!''
McNamara did not kill himself, as his predecessor did - but he spent his four remaining decades a haunted, haunting figure. As he had tried to tame the nuclear beast and failed, he had tried to undo his mistake in Vietnam, and failed. As the war raged on for most of a decade more, he never openly denounced it - nor any of the other futile American wars that followed. He was as broken as Ahab - and Forrestal - but was cursed to wander on, a living pariah of regret.
The obsequies at McNamara's death have left out the largest part of his story, like remembering Ahab without mentioning Moby Dick. In fact, McNamara's nemesis lives. For all his faults, McNamara had bravely launched himself against the tangible malignity, as if his chest had been a mortar. His brief but frenzied effort to lash what he had himself set loose came to nothing. Self-pity trumped bravery in the end. But the point is less about McNamara's failure than ours. America recast itself as a garrison state in the middle of the 20th century, handing over the largest part of its treasure and genius to war and war readiness. We blindly lashed our economy, academy, and culture to a nuclear engine that defeats the moral agency of our greatest leaders. Not even the end of the Cold War released us from the grip of the Cold War behemoth.
Today, many who hold President Obama in high regard are disappointed that his military policies are so familiar: an incipient Vietnam in Afghanistan; NATO expansion and missile defense ongoing; Pentagon spending unchecked - all contradicting what Obama led the world to expect.
The president is responsible for his choices, but something else is at work. That the timid nuclear agreement he achieved in Moscow last week, protecting thousands of nukes for years, was nevertheless denounced as sell-out shows the problem. The great white whale of American militarism thrashes on. Robert McNamara, in his long agony, was the prophet of our unfinished task.