The single best commentary that I’ve seen on the life of Robert McNamara, who died recently, was this one from Stephen Walt.
Walt wrote this:
- Some commentators see McNamara as a tragic figure; a talented, driven, and dedicated public servant who mishandled a foolish war and spent the remainder of his life trying to atone for it. The obituary in today’s New York Times takes this line, describing him as having “spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war’s moral consequences,” and as someone who “wore the expression of a haunted man.”
I see his fate differently. Unlike the American soldiers who fought in Indochina, or the millions of Indochinese who died there, McNamara did not suffer significant hardship as a result of his decisions. He lived a long and comfortable life, and he remained a respected member of the foreign policy establishment. He had no trouble getting his ideas into print, or getting the media to pay attention to his pronouncements. Not much tragedy there.
Walt goes on to note that despite McNamara’s having been so terribly, terribly wrong about the US war in Vietnam, he not only continued to be given powerful (and very well-paid) jobs and to be treated by others in the US establishment as an important source of wisdom– he also continued to act as if he were indeed such a source, “lecturing” everyone who cared to listen (and many did) on this, that, or the next thing.
True, some of his “lectures” were well-argued and to the point. But Walt is right to point to the essential lack of humility with which this coldly technocratic guy continued to act in the world.
Walt also importantly links the way the US political elite treated McNamara after Vietnam with the way it treats the architects of the much more recent Bush-era foreign-policy disasters/crimes, today:
- Overall, McNamara’s post-Vietnam behavior raises a broader question about the role of former officials who have led their country into major disasters. Ordinarily, we should respect the men and women who have devoted years of their lives to public service and listen carefully to the counsel of those who have the benefit of long experience…
But in some cases — and a lot of former Bush administration officials come to mind here — the failures are of sufficient gravity as to render all subsequent advice suspect. And when a government official’s repeated errors have left thousands of their fellow citizens dead or grievously wounded, along with hundreds of thousands of other human beings, it would be more seemly for them to remain silent, in mute acknowledgement of their own mistakes. And if they persist in pontificating — as Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, and Dick Cheney are now doing — a nation that understood the importance of accountability might have the good sense to pay them the attention and respect they deserve. Which is to say: none.
Excellent point, Steve. My own thoughts exactly. And excellently expressed.
Douglas Feith and John Yoo also come to mind as those who should be subjected to a modern-day form of shunning.
Also, regarding Elliott Abrams, of course he had encountered public disgrace earlier, back in the 1980s, when he was convicted for perjury for his role in the Iran-Contra scam. (Later pardoned.) But that didn’t stop him, soon thereafter, from being treated as a “valued source” for opinion on all kinds of things; and it was by being rehabilitated in that way by the MSM and other public institutions that he became “kosher enough” to be appointed by Pres. Bush to his NSC staff.
How much better for the world if instead of that very effective public rehabilitation having happened, Abrams had continued to be publicly shunned from the time of his conviction onwards. Pardon or no pardon.
Yes, I am for forgiveness. But I am also for accountability. And none of these people deserves any public forgiveness until after they have shown through their words and their deeds that they fully understand the harm that they have caused to other fellow-humans through their previous actions, and that they are ready to work to try to repair some of that harm.
McNamara, toward the very end of his life– in, for example, the Fog of War movie– started to express some of the necessary remorse. But throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s he still failed to do so, and he continued to be treated with great public respect and deference by most members of the US elite. Including (but not limited to) the media elite.
That paved the way for travesties like the “rehabilitation” of Elliott Abrams (and, to a lesser extent, the “rehabilitation” of other Iran-Contra-era figures like Robert “Bud” Macfarlane.)
Maybe now is finally time to stop that long-running cycle of giving all these pernicious guys a public “Get Out of Jail Free” card.