Robert Strange McNamara died last week. By now it's old news, I guess, but I didn't have a column last week.
"Karma, isn't this a movie column, so shouldn't you talk about movies?"
This is a movie column, but I can't think about McNamara without thinking about movies. Let me explain: I was born right after the Vietnam War wound down, long after McNamara had left President Johnson's administration and found his less controversial job at the World Bank.
If you're part of my generation or from the generations after me, I've probably already lost you. A brief history in two paragraphs:
Robert McNamara was instrumental in the firebombings of Japan in WWII. If the allies had lost, he admits he would have been prosecuted as a war criminal. Then McNamara became the first President of Ford who wasn't a "Ford," and tried to make people wear seat belts (before you had to).
President Kennedy then called McNamara into his cabinet as Secretary of Defense, which means that McNamara was serving when Kennedy sent the first Americans into the Vietnam conflict (just as the French were leaving, having realized Vietnam was unwinnable (though it should be noted that the French were there for very different reasons)). And then Kennedy
was shot and the Johnson administration pulled us deep into the big muddy.
Baldwin as McNamara
"Karma, you're still not talking about movies."
Almost all of my experience with Robert McNamara has been mediated by movies.
I managed to grow up associating the name McNamara with Vietnam, with a super-vague sense that McNamara was "behind" it all. My grandfather fought heroically in Vietnam and believes very much in the war, but somehow I thought my grandfather having been there was McNamara's responsibility.
Watching SMOTHERED, a documentary about censorship and THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW, you come to understand the extent to which McNamara and Vietnam are linked. The documentary shows a comic song called the Draft Dodger's Rag, in which the narrator talks about loving his country, but then lists all the different reasons why he cannot serve. At one point, Tommy Smothers looks into the camera and calls McNamara out by name—then they move into the final rendering of the chorus.
Media produced after the war reinforced the idea that McNamara was a war hawk. Alec Baldwin, for example, portrayed this type of McNamara in PATH TO WAR. I had never actually heard McNamara speak, but the t.v. told me he was completely behind the war. Like Homer Simpson, I found myself unable to conjure a reality that t.v. did not confirm.
It is fitting, therefore, that film gave me a picture with which to contrast my perceived reality.
Errol Morris's THE FOG OF WAR shook me to my core. This documentary on McNamara not only gave us an elderly (but not frail) McNamara reviewing the events of his life, but also gave the audience audio recordings we had not heard before. The Gulf of Tonkin attack, which gave President Johnson resolute powers in sending in troops with Congress's assent (that is, the power to make war without having to declare war), is shown to be problematic.
And we hear a young McNamara trying to convince Johnson to pull out of Vietnam and Johnson shutting him down. McNamara's support of the war in public view was his support of Johnson, of the office of the Presidency. Although McNamara's interviews were conducted before 9/11, one cannot help but draw comparisons to other public defenders of war and wonder how much they actually agree with war policy.
Of course, it would be too easy to say that Morris's film shows an innocent McNamara. McNamara did not lose his tendency to be a control freak with age. He tells us he has learned not to answer questions he doesn't want to answer, to spin information. He admits that he's made mistakes, admits that he has committed what others would call atrocities (I have never before looked into the eyes of someone who says he could be tried as a war criminal). He refuses to discuss the full effect of Vietnam on his family and refuses to say why he didn't talk about his belief of the futility of the Vietnam War after he and Johnson formally parted ways.
I have used the THE FOG OF WAR to teach point of view, history, rhetoric, and narrative structure. My students are even more removed from the war than I am. Occasionally they gasp when they learn how much of Japan was burned before the dropping of the atomic bombs, but they always gasp when they hear how little McNamara paid for his Berkeley tuition (less than $50 a year, if I remember correctly).
Having seen the film so many times, I feel like I've lost someone I know. I would never pretend that I could know McNamara well through this film—he held things close. Yet I have admired his intellect, I have found his devotion to his wife to be sweet, and I have looked into his eyes.
I'm not entirely sure why, but I am out of sorts knowing that Robert Strange McNamara has passed into the fog of time.
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