There's been a lot of ink spilled in the past week over how we ought to think about the late Robert McNamara. (And yes, real ink, not just virtual - even the remaining real newspapers were in on it.) Does the fact that he came to realize that the Vietnam War ("McNamara's War" to some) was wrong even as he continued to pursue it as Lyndon Johnson's Defense Secretary make him a better or a worse person? And what of his willingness to say it publicly - but only three decades later? There may be a more useful way to think about him, however. And it involves considering him not in conjunction with, say, Henry Kissinger, who followed a course similar to his but apparently without hesitation, but more in terms of General Smedley Butler, someone who did learn from his experience.
Butler, of course, achieved far greater clarity than the ever-hedging McNamara did. Butler's story is fairly well known: four years after a military career that included service in Cuba, China, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Haiti, and France, he wrote a book called "War is a Racket." He gave speeches in which he would say things like, "during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."
Whether any of this later-in-life understanding made Butler a better or worse person I do not know. What I do know, though, is that what Butler was willing to say and write was extremely helpful to more than one generation of antiwar activists: "Hey, you don't have to take my word for it. Listen to this guy, he should know."
Likewise, I suggest to no one that they should get over their antipathy to Robert McNamara if that is what they feel - the evil that he and Kissinger and the rest did will long outlive them. And anyone who no longer hates the criminals should certainly remain outraged at their crimes. But let us take something of value out of McNamara's life.
When we encounter potential military recruits looking to serve in one of the nation's seemingly always available wars but not looking too closely at exactly what it is we're fighting for because they assume our leaders wouldn't lead them astray on matters of life and death, let's tell them about Robert McNamara. If the man in charge of one of our wars could later write that what the US did at the time was "wrong, terribly wrong," don't we all owe it to ourselves to take a closer look at where those in power are leading us today?
And when it comes to questioning the conduct of modern war, it's hard to beat McNamara's comments in Errol Morris' documentary film "The Fog of War": "We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo -- men, women and children," he told Morris. "[General Curtis] LeMay said, 'If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals.' And I think he's right. He -- and I'd say I -- were behaving as war criminals." And that was World War II he was talking about - the "good war." Words to keep in mind the next time one of our drones accidently bombs a wedding.
A remark of McNamara's made during a C-SPAN discussion of his 1995 memoir, "Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," is a good reminder of just how infuriating he could be, right to the end. In regard to Vietnam, he told his interviewer, "We were fighting -- and we didn't realize it -- a civil war. Now, true, obviously there were Soviet and Chinese influence and support and no question that the communists were trying to control South Vietnam, but it was basically a civil war."
Well, if McNamara didn't know it was a civil war, it wasn't because tens of thousands of the war's opponents hadn't said so or because President Eisenhower hadn't publicly acknowledged that Ho Chi Minh would have been elected president of Vietnam in a fair election.
But even if McNamara may never have been a man to be taken entirely at his word, what he went on to say on C-SPAN that day might just have some value today as the US plunges deeper into an already nearly eight year old war in Afghanistan: "And one of the things we should learn is you can't fight and win a civil war with outside troops, and particularly not when the political structure in a country is dissolved."