On Robert McNamara

On Robert McNamara

Plenty of words have already been written about former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and more will be written now that he is gone. I was only twelve years old when he “stepped down” as secretary of defense, and I didn’t know much about his role in national security policy or even his disastrous mis-management of Vietnam at that time. I studied his career during college and graduate school, however, and subsequently paid a lot of attention to his various pronouncements about nuclear weapons, his recollections about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his belated mea culpa about his role in Vietnam.

Some commentators see McNamara as a tragic figure; a talented, driven, and dedicated public servant who mishandled a foolish war and spent the remainder of his life trying to atone for it. The obituary in today’s New York Times takes this line, describing him as having “spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war’s moral consequences,” and as someone who “wore the expression of a haunted man.”

I see his fate differently. Unlike the American soldiers who fought in Indochina, or the millions of Indochinese who died there, McNamara did not suffer significant hardship as a result of his decisions. He lived a long and comfortable life, and he remained a respected member of the foreign policy establishment. He had no trouble getting his ideas into print, or getting the media to pay attention to his pronouncements. Not much tragedy there.

McNamara may have been a gifted analyst and corporate executive, blessed with a lot of raw smarts, but he was also one of those people who could not imagine being wrong or resist the desire to tell the world what to do. Failure in Vietnam did not teach him humility; he ran the World Bank with same ego-driven sense of infallibility he had brought to the Pentagon (and with predictably mixed results). Yet this second experience with failure did not temper his love of the limelight or his desire to prescribe How Things Should Be Done. He spent the last decades of his life offering high-profile advice on various aspects of nuclear weapons policy — with the same degree of self-assurance he had always displayed — and he sought the spotlight once again with a belated memoir on his role in Vietnam. As always, however, it was filled with “lessons” for others; to the last, McNamara retained an unwarranted confidence in his own ideas as well as an inability to keep quiet.

Overall, McNamara’s post-Vietnam behavior raises a broader question about the role of former officials who have led their country into major disasters. Ordinarily, we should respect the men and women who have devoted years of their lives to public service and listen carefully to the counsel of those who have the benefit of long experience. Moreover, someone who is no longer competing for a job in Washington may be more likely to give honest advice than someone who is still worrying about the questions she might face at a confirmation hearing.

But in some cases — and a lot of former Bush administration officials come to mind here — the failures are of sufficient gravity as to render all subsequent advice suspect. And when a government official’s repeated errors have left thousands of their fellow citizens dead or grievously wounded, along with hundreds of thousands of other human beings, it would be more seemly for them to remain silent, in mute acknowledgement of their own mistakes. And if they persist in pontificating — as Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, and Dick Cheney are now doing — a nation that understood the importance of accountability might have the good sense to pay them the attention and respect they deserve. Which is to say: none.

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