Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Robert McNamara versus Terry Gross

When Robert McNamara was alive, he represented about as much intellectual firepower as you could cram onto two legs. That didn’t mean he had things sussed. He was the architect of the Viet Nam War, and opposition to that war and the fact of the draft shaped choices I made as a young man, and shaped who I became. McNamara came to think the US couldn’t win in Nam, and resigned -- or was ejected --from the Johnson Administration.

Still it was hard to know what to say at the wake.

It took Fresh Air from WHYY, the night he died, and a night’s sleep before I had something original to add.

Terry Gross is the canniest interviewer on radio today. She replayed her 1995 interview with McNamara, one in which he promotes his memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” There may be some quicker and better prepared reporter, somewhere, but I haven’t heard any. Good or not, Gross kept trying for an apology, and she never laid a glove on Mac. Next she replayed her interview with Errol Morris, the director of the 2001 documentary, “Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” Morris was less interested in apology, in spite of being of age and sensibility similar to Gross’ and mine. (Gross, b.: 1951; Morris, b.: 1948, your servant, b.: 1949)

“Fog” opens in the middle of an answer from Mac. There’s a framing device related to Morris’ running out of film, and intended to characterize McNamara as a brilliant control freak (He directs Morris about how to handle an interruption). In this speech, McNamara says that commanders in war will inevitably err, and people die. He claims that three times during the Kennedy Administration the world was hours away from nuclear war, the kind of war when nations would die.

So, Bobby, if ye kin hear me, wurrivver ye are... What was it made ye think that holdin’ the line in that little rinkydinkaragua of Viet Nam would avert the great nuclear holocaust? And if it be the case that it might’ve, what made ye think ye had th’ right to make th’ poor sufferin’ Viet Namese bear the turrible cost? And further, if ye were keerect in all your ponderin’ and calculatin’ whatever for did ye walk away from it all?

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