Robert S. McNamara struggled with his own humanity in the face of all he had done. His faith in statistics, systems theory, and science was equaled by his seeming allergy to human emotion, in spite of a life lived full of emotion. Whether his sense of duty was a righteous sham or a noble straightjacket cannot be answered now, but we do know that his sense of duty prevented him from acting on his beliefs. In not acting – not speaking out against the war and Johnson’s stubborn pursuit of it – McNamara’s misdeeds became the emblem of his life.
My perspective on McNamara is a luxury of history. In 1984, when I was working for the Mondale campaign as a College Democrat, we looked back on the 1960s with dim and misplaced nostalgia for something we didn’t understand. When we drew up our marches and rallies against the U.S. role in Central America, we wondered what had been lost since 1968.
With this in mind, I wrote my friend, Peter, who was there in 1968. I asked him to read the post and address one question: “[D]o you think I let him off too easily?”
He wrote me the following, which he allowed me to post here without editing:
McNamara remains something of an enigma to me. He was definitely my enemy back in the 1960s when I was going to school in Ann Arbor. I recently relived those days with one of my old friends. I was attending a conference in Dearborn and made a trip to AA on a beautiful spring day, and my buddy (I hadn’t seen him since 1984) drove in from western Michigan. We recalled the bombing of the ROTC building, the bombing of the CIA office hidden somewhere in downtown AA, various demonstrations we took part in, our first and subsequent encounters with teargas, etc., our first trip to DC to take part in an antiwar march, etc. (we didn’t leave out drugs and rock and roll in our tour of memory lane).
You are quite right about McNamara’s capacity for self-reflection and his—you don’t use these terms— almost theological understanding of what Paul Ricoeur would call “fallible man.” And of course this is what makes him so very different from the motherfuckers of recent vintage who got us into unnecessary wars. Not only will they never be described as the “best and the brightest,” but they provide ample evidence of a total incapacity for self-reflection and self-doubt. All this being said, one of the things that “The Fog of War” revealed was that there were definitely limits to McNamara’s willingness or ability to plunge into his psychic depths. I have a sense that he got near the heart of the matter, but perhaps because of what psychoanalysts call (or at least used to call) resistance, never quite managed to truly come to terms with the reasons for and consequences of his actions.
Errol Morris’s reflections came out in the New York Times yesterday, “McNamara in Context.” Morris points out that as McNamara saw it, his job was to keep us out of nuclear war, which he succeeded in doing even as he failed so spectacularly in other important ways. So much of his life’s work, including at the World Bank, created unintended consequences that were not good at all. Robert S. McNamara was one singularly influential person, a Robert Moses of death and destruction, who had it in his power to do so many things at the flick of a finger.
Like my friend Peter, Morris notes that McNamara never fully accounted for his individual role in the Vietnam War and the unnecessary death it caused, noting that he always used the first person plural when speaking of it. “We were wrong.” For Morris this is part of a greater conundrum: “… how do you say you’re sorry for history?” That kind of accountability is bigger than the individual who, if responsible for some large part of the problem, was surely not alone in it. McNamara was in over his head. He had no mind for the ideas and emotions that would have addressed the situation he was in.
We see now how Dick Cheney is living with his failures. It’s not likely his obituary will state that in his later years “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.”
That image, by Tim Weiner in the New York Times obituary of McNamara, recalled for me another fallen genius of the same era: John Nash and his haunting of Princeton in his illness, prior to his resurfacing and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Economics. Both men were gripped by insanity at the height of their powers, only McNamara’s was an historical psychosis that had sanction and authority, while Nash’s was a bitterly lonely, neurological defect.
What is the line between the righteous pursuit of the good, however one conceives it, and real evil? Between clarity of vision and madness? Or perhaps more aptly stated: Who draws that line? The righteous believe they know, and that it’s a simple issue. But it’s not. Maybe there is no line at all, or maybe it gets dim or disappears from time to time. An unwelcome thought indeed, but in math, the empty set is always a subset of any set. ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A So it is with life.
This is not the same as saying there is no good or evil – for there is – only that in some situations truth and rocket science place us at a disadvantage, in a fog of righteousness and knowledge. McNamara was an outlier in the same population of which we are all members, and when we really look at outliers, we simply see ourselves, or at least parts of ourselves, magnified.
The mathematical notation ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A means that “for all sets A, the empty set (∅) is a subset of A.”
Robert Moses was the most powerful figure shaping the urban geography of the New York City metropolitan area. From the 1920s to the 1970s, he created park systems, highways, bridges, tunnels, and public housing that, taken together, are fundamental elements of any picture of 20th and 21st century New York. While few dispute the benefits of the parks, beaches, and swimming pools Moses created, his highways destroyed neighborhoods and isolated populations from each other. Along with the system of public housing he created, Moses is partly responsible for the patterns of racial segregation in New York, and according to Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf), this was intentional. By the 1960s, Moses’s star began to wane, and he lost several public battles over new projects. One of Moses’s most influential critics was Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a classic urban geography and community theory. Jacobs led the fight against Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was never built. Like McNamara, Moses was an appointed official.
For six months in 2004, I lived on the Red Hook side of “the trench,” a stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (a Moses project) that, along with the Gowanus Expressway (Moses) and Battery Tunnel (Moses), cuts off Red Hook from nearby Carroll Gardens. Red Hook’s public housing development (Moses, again) is one of the largest in New York, and its residents are largely non-white. Carroll Gardens is an old Italian neighborhood that has retained its character, though they had to fight make sure the BQE didn’t demolish their church. In the last few years, Red Hook is undergoing new change, as people from all over the city flock to the giant swimming pool in the park there (Moses), along with one of the newest, and largest IKEA stores (not Moses) in the metropolitan area. Another major (decidedly un-Moses) attraction to Red Hook today are the tacos, whose vendors recently won a touchy battle with the city in order to keep plying their delights for summer soccer fans. It was a struggle Jane Jacobs might have appreciated, as chronicled in part in the Brooklyn Paper.
I have not read Gladwell’s book, Outliers. I’ve read two of his other books and enjoyed them. In my own work as a social scientist, I’ve spent the last 20 years looking at the differences between outliers the rest of us. Not a fan of essentialisms, yet without denying the possibility of essential differences among some people, I tend to view difference as a matter of degrees and context. (see The truth and us).