mcnamara-0404As a prominent public figure, Robert McNamara was before my time. He had stepped down as Secretary of Defense well before I was even born. But the man who died Monday had a more profound influence on our country’s politics and policy than any number of more recent, more familiar, and more famous names.

McNamara was 93 years and one month old. He was born in 1916, before the U.S. was involved in World War I, and the strongest influence on his worldview was almost certainly World War II, in which he served under Gen. Curtis LeMay helping plan bombing strategy before the age of 30. But his rise to fame (and infamy) was certainly his management of the Vietnam War from 1961-’67.

And the results of that war had a negative impact on the politics and culture of this country that was both immediate (undermining the effectiveness of Johnson’s Great Society programs and polarizing the American electorate) and lasting (paving the way for Reagan-era feel-good revisionism, and teaching all the wrong lessons to the phalanx of neoconservatives who took us into Iraq).

McNamara certainly had second thoughts about his role in history, and in later years he expressed them, most notably in his 1995 memoir. But for all the media scrutiny to which he was subjected, in the ’60s and the ’90s, I still don’t find it (quite) possible to get inside his head.

There is a fundamental cognitive disconnect that is, perhaps, generational in character. For my entire life, for as long as I’ve been aware of foreign affairs at all, it was always abundantly clear to me that the Cold War was based on fundamentally flawed premises, and the alleged justifications for it were first and foremost pretexts for other, less public-spirited motivations.

(To wit: the Soviet Union had not and did not pose an existential threat to the United States; communism was a competing economic system, nothing more nor less; and the countries that claimed to be communist in character would rise or fall on the basis of how effectively they served the needs of their people, a criterion which varied as much among those nations as it did among Western ones. Such countries (and the systems they represented) may have been our opponents, but there was no need for them to be our enemies. The real existential threats were the vast array of nuclear weapons aimed around the world under the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” a doctrine only as sound as the least-sane head of state responsible for maintaining it… and in a more philosophical sense, the policies the U.S. countenanced in the developing world that undermined our own principles in the name of “national security.”)

Much the same is true for my parents’ generation, at least for that faction of it that had the courage to see Vietnam for what it was—namely, the most overtly destructive manifestation of that undermining of principles. 

For McNamara, though, the product of an earlier generation… things were different. It’s clear in his memoir; in the radio interviews he did back in the ’90s that have been replayed this week; and in the 2003 film The Fog of War, in which he was interviewed at length by documentarian Errol Morris. McNamara was shaped by the experience of WWII, in which a genuine existential threat to “our way of life” mushroomed almost beyond control because we failed to confront it in time, in which even the most extreme measures (Hiroshima) were considered justified by the stakes.  For McNamara, global communism was an existential threat, and the “domino theory” was real and persuasive:  if even a small country like Vietnam “fell to communism,” even at the behest of its own people, then others would follow, the conflict would escalate, the Soviets would be emboldened, and another, even more disastrous world war might well come to pass.

He was so deeply steeped in this worldview that it took him years to realize that the results of the policies he shaped were almost diametrically the opposite of the ones intended and desired. (As Robert Scheer writes: “he sought to hold fast to claims of noble intentions that the record cannot sustain. The issue is how noble intentions really are when the facts that show their results turning to horror are readily at hand yet overlooked.”) So deeply steeped that even after he reached that realization, it took him nearly 30 years to describe his regrets to the public. So deeply that even when he saw the same mistakes being duplicated in the wake of 9/11, he was unable to speak out. For a man who thought himself a realist, it was an oddly naive worldview.

For all that, though, he still manifested more of a change of heart than almost any other figure of his generation. Second thoughts are seldom encouraged or valued among those in power. (George F. Kennan springs to mind as one earlier Cold Warrior who entertained such… but hard-liners like John Foster Dulles wound up exerting far more influence.) Clearly a great many people both then and now, policymakers and citizens alike, are simply predisposed always to see an existential threat of some sort, somewhere in the world, and to let that quasi-paranoid perception shape their character and their priorities. (Such people are all too often also predisposed to believe that the Official Enemy “only understands force” and sees diplomacy as weakness… which has always struck me first and foremost as psychological projection on their part.)

Still others, more cynically, may be less devout in their convictions but instead guided by the power and influence such an attitude allows them to manipulate. There were certainly those who benefitted greatly from the expansion of the military-industrial complex in the early years of the Cold War… and such expediency also seems to characterize much of the past decade’s PNAC crowd, most prominently Dick Cheney.

The fundamental problem with today’s “war on terror,” and the rhetoric and policies that accompany it, is that the U.S. and its allies quite simply do not face any serious existential threat from international terrorism. Any policies premised on the notion that we do will be fundamentally flawed, every bit as much as was Vietnam. Moreover, to the extent that terrorism does act to reduce international stability, especially in the middle east, the proximate cause to which that can most directly be traced is inarguably our support of the coup against Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953… which has been blowing back on us in various ways for at least three decades now, and which was itself a short-sighted product of the Cold War mindset described above.

If there’s one lesson we should learn from McNamara’s life, it should be to avoid such international adventurism, where the short-term benefits are overwhelmingly outweighed by our inability to assess the long-term risks. Sadly, such lessons seldom seem to be learned except in retrospect.

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