The Vietnam War had ended before I was born, so I never directly felt its impact on my life. I never saw Robert McNamara on TV with his charts and know-it-all attitude explaining how the war was going swimmingly despite the increasing chaos. I never had to fear the draft, watch friends and family return mentally scarred or in boxes, or endure a horrible war that drained the soul of two countries. That's probably why I never had the visceral hatred that so many of the Vietnam era rightly felt and continue to feel for Robert McNamara, even after his death.
But a bigger reason is that most of what I know about Robert McNamara I learned from Errol Morris' excellent, essential documentary, The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. You can watch my review below. (And even though I call this a Brave New Review in the video, don't listen! ReThink Reviews is where it's at!)
In the Fog of War, we see a man grappling with his role in American history -- a role where his counsel led to the deaths of millions of innocent civilians in Japan and Vietnam and sent tens of thousands of young Americans to die in a pointless war. Many would say that such crimes -- some of them war crimes by McNamara's own admission -- can never be forgiven, nor can McNamara's silence on Vietnam after resigning with the belief that the war was not winnable.
I think they're right. But I also think McNamara might agree. Most of the film's eleven "lessons" (devised by Morris, not McNamara) reflect the powerful and painful humility of a man who knows he has made grave mistakes with graver consequences. Someone who now realizes that he made life-or-death decisions relying on faulty, incomplete information. Someone who knows firsthand that the world avoided nuclear annihilation not through intelligence and reason, but by sheer luck.
Long after Vietnam was over, McNamara said that he had been "wrong, terribly wrong" about the war, a statement that Bob Herbert of the New York Times said made him feel "nothing but utter contempt." But does that mean it makes no difference whether someone admits their errors or not? Does it matter that McNamara devoted the rest of his life to addressing global poverty (albeit at the World Bank) and advocating for nuclear disarmament? While I have nothing but utter contempt for Donald Rumsfeld, the McNamara of his day, and will never forgive him for the Iraq war, would I feel better if he admitted how wrong he had been and tried to make up for it?
McNamara was at the center of World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam, and came away believing that war was too complex and potentially disastrous to be left to humans. And while it may seem grossly unfair that McNamara lived to the ripe old age of 93 when he caused the premature death of so many, we would be fools not to listen to him.
If you are a teacher (or know one) and would like to use the Fog of War as a teaching tool, you can download a lesson plan to be used with the film here.
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