Robert S. McNamara died this morning at the age of 93. If you don’t know who he is, you can read his obituary in the NY Times, the LA Times, or his Wikipedia page. For more in-depth discussions of his life and legacy you can watch the 2004 Oscar-winning film The Fog of War, or read his 1995 autobiography, In Retrospect.
My first inclination with the passing of McNamara is to say something sarcastic and mean, not out of a desire to hurt his family but out of a need to make a statement against the actions this man took in his life. But I find myself doing what I just did in that last sentence: thinking about his family, or anyone who might be feeling loss due to the man’s passing today.
McNamara deserves to be understood as a weak and misguided man. On the latter point, he is no different than any number of government and military officials for more than half a century who were so wedded to the myth of the “domino effect” as to be blinded by the overwhelming evidence they collected that it was nothing but metaphor.
On the first count–on his weakness–perhaps he is also linked to an “army” of so-called leaders who forget to cherish the lives of the people who put their games of war into action, in addition to the lives of those whose deaths are the objects of those games. Robert McNamara served a government in a capacity which brought him tremendous power and responsibility. But, in his crucial moments, time and time again, he traded his obligations as a human being for the exigencies of that master.
A liberal-pragmatist might say men like McNamara are necessary when we need them to do the things we cannot. I don’t agree. In the world we have created, in the systems we have made and rely upon to define what is possible and necessary, perhaps. But that human-made reality must always be checked by the greater responsibilities we have to humanity and to the planet on which it resides.
In some ways, he recognized his failures as a human. His autobiography, his public opposition to further US immorality in war, all these were rooted (at least in part) in his sense that what he did was wrong. He might have been motivated more by the need to protect his historical memory but, in so doing, he did recognize the primary challenge to that legacy would be his all too-human failings. I think that is what is keeping me from being callous in my assessment of his death. Maybe he needed to be better and be contrite for those he left behind. Maybe I can empathize with them. Indeed, maybe we have the responsibility to do so.
It would be easy to call Robert McNamara “evil.” Whether or not he was is meaningless to me. The undeniable fact is he caused more human suffering than can be measured and he did so, in the end, for nothing. But it would also be a disservice to the millions who suffered as a result of his actions to dismiss him so casually. He was nothing but a man, yes, but a man whose failures were almost pre-determined by a government that would have exiled anyone who struggled for true, human “success” in his position.
This understanding is not meant to be absolution for the soul of Robert S. McNamara. Rather, it should be taken as an indictment of those of us who remain, as we continue to propogate a rationale of this world that necessitates war, that dismisses the tragedy of organized human death, and that, far too often, forgets to remember.