Robert S. McNamara: From stock villain to tragic character in a searing war

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

IN THE MOVIES, people who look like Robert S. McNamara never fare very well. The brainy, severe guy with the slicked-down hair, the glasses, the hard-charging managerial style and an unchallengeable faith in his own intellectual superiority is a stock character, generally portrayed as insufferable, inhuman and sometimes downright evil.

Life isn't the movies, of course, but during the long and tragic American involvement in Vietnam, it wasn't always easy to tell the difference. The passionate opposition to America's role in the war included a search for heroes and, more commonly, villains that extended even to American servicemen (a sharp contrast to today's conflicts, in which even the fiercest opponents of American military actions are careful not to attack those who carry them out). And a primary villain of the antiwar people, then and for years to come, was Mr. McNamara, secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968. As the death toll rose, American and Vietnamese, he was seen as the leader of those who dutifully pursued the American goal of defeating insurgent forces, no matter what the cost. By the end of his life, however, Mr. McNamara, who died yesterday at the age of 93, had come to be seen more as a figure out of Shakespeare than of cinema, tormented by guilt over his role in the Vietnam War, driven to stabilize and rein in the nuclear arms race, in which he had also figured large, devoting himself (as president of the World Bank) to alleviating poverty.

But Mr. McNamara was never forgiven by many of his bitter enemies from the Vietnam days. (In one strangely cinematic incident in 1972, another passenger on a ferry near Martha's Vineyard tried to throw him overboard). And in 1995, 30 years after the launching of the American buildup in Vietnam, Mr. McNamara made the astonishing (if only for its candor) admission that he had suspected almost from the beginning that the war could not be won. Rather than closure, that brought a new wave of vilification, not just from the war opponents but from those who had supported the American action and saw Mr. McNamara's attempt at penance, or at an honest accounting, as a betrayal.

Vietnam was called "McNamara's War" by one of his Senate critics, and to some degree the term stuck. But in truth, no appointed official makes a war on his own, or with the intellectual brilliance of his analysis. Any president, once forces are involved in a conflict, is under intense political pressure not to "lose" the war, as are members of Congress. Mr. McNamara, fairly early in the escalating Vietnam conflict, raised doubts about the military strategy the country was following. He got nowhere, the war went on -- and Mr. McNamara moved on, to the World Bank and many years of private and public agonizing over what he'd done. The true McNamara's War, as it turned out, was longer than Vietnam, and was fought mostly within himself.

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