Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Lord John Acton (1834-1902), a minor British noble, is perhaps best known by the following observation: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton came to mind while I was digesting the news that Robert McNamara died today, at the ripe old age of 93. McNamara lived to be 93-years-old. There are families throughout America who wish that the sons they sent off to the Vietnam grinder might have had the chance to live anywhere near as many years. I knew too many young men—we were all young—whom I personally believe to have been more deserving than McNamara of such a lengthy life. But he made it; they didn’t. And his fingerprints are all over their graves.

Of course McNamara was corrupt. No, he didn’t take any bribes that we know of, but he was corrupt in the sense that he placed himself and the political system over his country and his fellow man. His betrayal of all that is, or should be decent in us as humans is corrupt in the truest sense.

Tim Weiner has a good piece about McNamara in the NY Times today. By Spring of 1967—when I was in Vietnam—McNamara had decided that the war could not be won; he advised Lyndon Johnson to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. Instead of heeding this very good advice, Johnson fired McNamara. So did McNamara then go public with his reservations? Nah, he kept his mouth shut out of some misbegotten loyalty to the president, a deeply flawed individual whom McNamara apparently conflated with the nation. As an aside, there is too much of that going around. Somehow or other, we’ve allowed our president to be elevated to such a lofty level that none dare observe that the emperor has no clothes.

Weiner makes a good catch in his article when he cites this, written when McNamara wrote his mea culpa in 1995: “Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in a widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

What’s truly unforgivable about McNamara’s silence about his misgivings is that only (only!) 16 thousand Americans had died in Vietnam at the time he left the government. The final tally is more than 58 thousand. One can only wonder what might have happened had McNamara possessed the moral fortitude to tell the truth to the American people. One can only wonder how many American military personnel and Vietnamese, north and south, died as a result of his silence. His silence enabled the evil Nixon and Kissinger to continue the butchery for many years thereafter. McNamara was also a truly evil man.

Another Acton quote fits McNamara: “The man who prefers his country before any other duty shows the same spirit as the man who surrenders every right to the state. They both deny that right is superior to authority.” The older I get the more I understand the wisdom in these words. McNamara, and countless others, chose country or party over the right. But now that I am older—about as old as McNamara was in those tumultuous times—the more I understand that one’s country can indeed be seriously wrong, and that one betrays one’s humanity by refusing to do the right thing and by continuing to support the wrong. That McNamara waited until 1995 before he told the truth tells us that he was a lesser man, a man not fit to hold a position of trust with our our nation or deserving of respect.

As an aside, when I think of McNamara, I think of another man, a man too many still admire, a man who is still making money by speaking at various events attended by the rich and famous. This would be one Colin Powell, a man for whom I have boundless contempt, just as I do with McNamara. Imagine if you will the cowardly Powell resigning as secretary of state in early Summer of 2004. Imagine the cowardly Powell ever telling the truth about Iraq, rather than hiding behind surrogates. Imagine a President Kerry now in his second term, and imagine what might have happened with our misbegotten military adventures and with our economy. Imagine how our nation and the world would be if McNamara and Powell hadn’t been cowards.

Howell Raines was an interesting guy. If memory serves, he was a native Alabaman, but he was in now way a stereotypical Southern conservative. Raines, a truly enlightened man, also noted this about McNamara: “By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”

From this, one infers that McNamara suffered for his silence. I hope so. I hope he suffered every day for the rest of his undeserved very long life. And I also think of another observation from Lord Acton: “To be able to look back upon one's past life with satisfaction is to live twice.” It's not much, but maybe we can take some solace from thinking that McNamara just perhaps had the remnants of a conscience and may have been haunted by his past. Maybe Powell has the same problem. We know many others don't.

So here’s my eulogy for you, Robert Strange McNamara. May you burn in hell. You certainly have my moral contemnation.

BTW, just to let everyone know just what a smart fellow Lord Acton was, here's another quote: "The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks." We still haven't fought that one. We're being prevented from doing so by the moneyed and comfortable class, and yes, that includes you and your retainers, Mr. Barack Obama. We have a long way to go before we can say that we are afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. McNamara was merely one of many who aspire to positions of leadership, but who then betray those whom they purport to lead.


  1. I fear you have unreasonable expectations.

    Judging by past and present behaviour,
    moral courage is not a requirement for high leadership.

    In fact, it may well be a disqualifying factor.

    You ask too much from Mr. McNamara. Or perhaps, everyone else asks too little from the rest of our leaders.

  2. I heard an excellent piece on NPR yesterday about McNamara which included a lot of tape from the final interview that McNamara gave in 2005.

    In short, McNamara agreed wholeheartedly with you. It seems to have taken almost 40 years but Bob McNamara finally came to the conclusion that he'd made a huge mistake and was essentially a war criminal.

    Although he physically moved on to the World Bank (where he did good work) and other positions, Vietnam dogged him for the rest of his life. He was always being asked questions about it and he was always asking himself questions about it.

    I'm very curious about when he finally came to the soul-shattering decision to finally accept all blame for his actions. He certainly hadn't done it when his book came out, there he only admitted that "some mistakes were made."

    On the subject of moral courage, I've got a strange connection to that issue right now. I recently had a review of my performance and one of the things that my boss revealed was that I'd been considered for a minor promotion but had not been chosen (in fact the position still hasn't been filled).

    The reason I was passed over was that it was generally agreed that I am too willing to share my opinions with too many people and that if I want to get promoted I need to keep my opinions to myself and keep to the company line.

    The opinions I share at work have VERY minor consequences compared to that of the Secretary of Defense or State and yet I can't help but wonder if McNamara and Powell didn't recall similar conversations they'd had in their careers before they held such exalted positions.

    I am too willing to tell truth to power (although I note that senior management in my company is usually willing to listen to me when I do choose to speak to them) but the people who continually get promoted are trained to be quiet when push comes to shove.

    While this is very helpful to the people who promoted them, there comes a time when you need to speak up for the good of the world. Far too many people fail to recognize it when it happens and stumble around in the dark for the rest of their lives trying to blame somebody else for their mistake.

  3. First, I would like to offer that upon hearing of Mr McNamara's passing, my eyes remain dry.

    Second, as to Colin Powell, I would offer the following, not in his defense, but in explanation. Powell spent virtually his entire adult life in uniform. While we are expected to speak honestly and candidly to our superiors when they are ready to follow a misguided course, that "speaking out" is only to the superior involved, not to the world at large. If the superior rejects our advice and still issues a lawful order, we either obey as if it were our own idea, or request relief from service. A subordinate does not conduct his own investigation of his superior's "intel" unless it is patently obvious to be false.

    Powell was the perfect shill for the Rove/Cheney administration. He came into the office of Sec State conditioned to expect truthful information from his superiors, and, of course, he didn't.

    That does not excuse him, but it does sort of explain his profound failure.


  4. Nicely written Publius.

    For years I waited for McNamara to make his confession, thinking it would bring some relief and closure. Strangely, when it finally came, the opposite happened, and the anger and depression just worsened.

    Powell is from the same mold. There was a time when I would have voted for him in a heartbeat, and I would have followed him into the gates of hell. I believed he was one of the great military leaders of our generation. But like McNamara he eventually confused his loyalties to his chain of command with his duties to his country.

    The honorable course was clear at the time he made his choices. A private message to the administration, resignation if the administration didn't listen, and then a public statement setting out his reasons for resigning.

    Went to the Zachery Taylor National Cemetery a few weeks ago and visited an old friend at A-794.
    Fred Salyer. Got his McNamara Fellowship about 1966, didn't make to 21.

    Walter Olin

  5. McNamara's fall from grace is that he could have been the stand up guy.
    He could have been the one who prevented the fuck up of the century.
    He could have been the one for the history books who placed country above personal loyalty...but...he did not.
    He choose silence.
    He choose omission of action.
    He choose his place in history, and by so choosing...he has earned the righteous condemnation that he earned.
    Whether he thought of the future consequences of his silence or not, he is the author of his future.

    So this is the lesson I learned from Mr. McNamara: My objections born in silence condemns me far more than being a cheerleader because if I perceive the truth and do nothing...I'm guiltier than the person who ignored the truth from the get go.

  6. My beef with McNamara has a different cast. I think his confession in his book was BS. His sin IMHO was never that he was afraid to speak truth to power. Did he not in fact get fired by LBJ for speaking his mind???

    His sin was his overbearing arrogance and refusal to listen to any subordinates unless they told him what he wanted to hear about his sacred statistics.

    McNamara's type of statistical analysis is great for quality control when measuring the output of lathes and milling machines or returned merchandise. And it may have had a small role in defeating the U-Boat threat in WW-2. But it is a detriment when company and battalion commanders have to spend most of their time responding every nit that he was trying to measure.


  7. I may be medieval in this, but I truly believe in the ideas of confession, repentance and penance. We all fuck up. To continue to live requires that we be able to own up to our wrongs and failures, to accept our responsibility and to make an offering to those we have wronged.

    My problem with McNamara - and I was never touched directly by his acts during the Vietnam War - is that while he publicly confessed, and sort-of repented, he never sacrificed himself, never made the offering of his life appropriate to the shades of those who lost theirs because of his arrogance and cowardice.

    When you think of it, the only real way for the man to have "apologized" to those he wronged and the degree of his wronging, would have been to have had to have given up everything; wealth, power, comfort, in effect his entire life, and have toiled anonymously as the lowest of menials, cleaning the toilets of the poor or bandaging the weeping sores of lepers, until he died and was tipped into an unmarked pauper's grave, forgotten, alone and unmourned.

    Instead he will be interred in some well-tended Episcopalian cemetary, his passing eulogized by his well-fed, well-dressed cronies, his failings elided, his "remorse" softened and pasteurized. THAT, to me, is the real shame and real crime the man represents. Instead of an object lesson to those still living public life (see C. Powell, et al) in the failure of human decency that his bootlicking and self-excusing life represented, he will go into history as a sort of faded footnote in a forgotten mistake.

  8. It seems to me that McNamara's overwhelming hubris was his greatest sin.

    First in demanding all the data points that Mike mentioned (where he assumed his data points would more accurately represent the situation on the ground than a report by a human being)

    Second, when he compiled the data points and found that they indicated that the US was going to lose in Vietnam, he assumed that his own data points were wrong because he was in charge.

    Third, when he faced reality and admitted that this was a war that couldn't be won, he kept blaming other people for the failure for most of his life. It was only at the very end that he finally realized that the only person to blame was himself.

    To take that long to make such a basic realization is almost incomprehensible to me and says quite a lot about the man's ego.

  9. To all,
    The fact is that all your comments are pertinent BUT the dead and wounded of RVN are dead and gone and still suffering if alive.. XIN LOI. Let's get a bit less personal here and move to the larger point-why are we doing the same thing today that we condemn RN for doing yesterday.? What have we learned and how have we benefitted? NADA it appears.
    This is a failure of Democracy and RN like the rest of us were simple walk on players.
    I will not judge the man. If there is a God then it's her job to provide judgement.

  10. Jim: The point is just that - we haven't judged the man. No one in authority; no politician at her podium, no preacher or priest in his pulpit, no pundit in his expensive TV chair, has been willing to stand up and say plainly: this man lied, he betrayed his trust, he was a fool and a traitor to his country and the people who trusted and followed him.

    In the same way that Nixon and Kissinger and Reagan and Ollie North and Dick Cheney and Dougie Feith and Paul Wolfowitz and Abu Gonzales and Colin Powell remain wealthy, deferred to, respected and listened to.

    The tragedy of McNamara is that he was allowed to go down to the grave in peace. Our tragedy is that we allowed him to.

    The issue is not one of personal like or dislike. It is that failure to tell the truth to power, failure to live up to the standards of personal honor and dignity, in a man who wasn't a walk-on but a major character, a Duncan to LBJ's MacBeth. The fact that he lied, that we knew he lied, and that we not only failed to hang him from the Liberty Tree as a dreadful example to the others who would prefer to put personal safety and comfort before the benefit of the Republic, but, instead, continued to treat him as an elder statesman, says more about the moribund condition of our democracy than any amount of powermongering from the Right.

  11. I am *glad* that I have never had to truly test my "personal honor and dignity".

    I fear that I would come up short, and consequently, am reluctant to chide others for their moral failings.

    I also note that McNamara was ultimately a henchman. Where are the complaints about JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Bush? It was their watch!

    Instead we have critiques of Gonzalez, Feith and Yoo. (and boy, they can be critiqued!).
    But they were all chosen by the lawful president of the time.

    If you don't like the people chosen by the president, then perhaps you are choosing the wrong president. Don't complain about them for their failings when they were doing exactly what they were chosen to do.

    Might as well complain about a fish for swimming too much.

  12. AEL -

    Are you really saying that we never complained about JFK, LBJ, Nixon, or Bush? I think if you look at the vast record of comments by everybody who posts here regularly you will find quite a number of posts bashing those gentlemen.

    Yes, we are focusing on McNamara at the moment but we are all very aware of the failings of the men listed above.

    Bob McN, Feith, Gonzo, Yoo, and many others were tools wielded by criminally short-sighted but powerful men to do terribly stupid things. You are right that, in general, we should concentrate on the primary person. But as the Nurnberg trials showed, the defense of "just following orders" is unacceptable in the larger scope of human affairs.

  13. Hmm, let me try another tack to make my point.

    Compare and contrast the moral failings of Robert S. McNamara and Melvin R. Laird.

  14. Ael: You're right, in that the failings of the jack fool that follows whouldn't be equated with th failings of the tomfool that leads.

    But McNamara was a special case.

    LBJ was in a uniquely powerful position to get the hell out of the RVN in 1964. He had a domestic agenda, the "Great Society", that was being pulled apart by Vietnam. He was a domestic policy wonk, not a "statesman". Bearing every burden, that was JFK's schtick. If McNamara had been the smart guy he was supposed to be, if he'd gone to LBJ in '64 and said, look, this thing isn't a world-wide Commie conspiracy, it's a goddam Vietnamese civil war and we need no part of it.", and shown all of his famous graphs and charts proving that we could spend a lot of blood and treasure there and get nowhere...

    Well, he didn't. So the man's name should be a byword and a hissing.

    And he's just one. Bush fils should go down in history as the American Somoza of Oughts; brutal, stupid and greedy, with extra incompetence sauce. I would opine that we don't feel nearly as dismissive and angry about American "leaders" like Laird, Newt Gingrich, Franklin Pierce, Chief Justice Taney, John Poindexter, or Warren Harding. All idiots or incompetents, all people who cost the American people either wealth, honor or lives.

    It should be, at least, a public shame and disgrace to be as wrong, and then as dishonest about the wrong, as those people are or were. We can't get the public and the history books to begine treating them all with the contempt they deserve right away.

    But McNamara is in the news right now, and he's a good place to start.

    Just sayin'.

  15. Chief,
    Let's forget the history books- they change nothing and are not as entertaining as graphic novels.
    The lives lost are gone- we must focus on today and ending the presently accepted lies that pose as policy.Johnson told us that Amurican boys wouldn't fight and die in SEA if he would be elected- the same implied promise was made by Obama . Nobody seems too enraged at his policies on the phony wars. We are a nation out of control, nowhere in our presnt comments are we even mentioning the complicity and connivance of the Congress.Then like now they pass the appropriations bills on an emergency basis and to hell with what the voters want. Mc Nameras lies are petty compared to those of the Congress and the President. It's a national shame that we all know that our leaders are lyers and we accept this as doctrine.
    VN/Afgh/Iraq share a common thread, it's not that we can't win but rather that there is nothing to win. They are all meaningless encounters as hollow as picking up a bar whore at Pig nite. And for this we fight.
    In closing- if the Secdef or any other unelected stooges get away with lying then the Congress is not doing their jobs of oversight and funding as described in the Constitution.

  16. Chief,
    As an afterthought, I'm not implying that you have any personal knowledge or experience with Pig Nite. This was a literary device only.

  17. Rummie and the Boys' Club.


    The famous poem with the famous line "the centre cannot hold" is very apt for these days.


    The next 2 don't get quoted as much, but still:

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.


    The lives lost are gone- we must focus on today and ending the presently accepted lies that pose as policy . . .

    Not for nothing does the Holy Writ call us "sheep". Driven by dogs or led by leaders who are hardly more than sheep themselves.


  18. "Let's forget the history books..." For shame, Ranger!!! You know better. How do you focus on the present and the future if you ignore history?

    Although I do agree that this has mostly turned into a trash-the-man-but-learn-nothing-from-his-mistakes post.


  19. Mike, It's not his mistakes but rather our mistakes.We the people allow this stuff to happen. Both then and now.