In Retrospect, Or Not

Robert McNamara is dead at 93. If you’ve never seen The Fog Of War, I commend it to you highly. McNamara possessed a characterological pathology I had never before encountered outside of a toddler: a bent for demonstrative public apology combined with a strident defense of both his course of action and the reasoning chain that led to it. Mickey Kaus wrote a good essay about McNamara in 1995, when McNamara published an apology/apologia titled In Retrospect, which Kaus archly called more of a "modified limited hangout than a mea culpa."

But it seems that doesn’t quite capture the depths of McNamara’s performative self-torment. I forget whether I read this in The Best And The Brightest or somewhere else, but I recall some (possibly-apocryphal) story about McNamara considering it his responsibility to attend Georgetown dinner parties and receive verbal abuse about Vietnam, particularly from the antiwar children of the establishment. The airing of this dissent, McNamara thought, was a solemn responsibility of power. Which sounds lovely and civic-minded until you consider that McNamara had by mid-1967 come to the conclusion, entirely in secret, that the war was unwinnable and he possessed considerable power as defense secretary to end it. Instead, he subjected himself to harsh language determined to reinforce his apoplexy while Americans and Vietnamese died for no reason. Viewed in that light, the 30 years between McNamara’s Pentagon tenure and his memoir were basically a period of dress rehersal.

I don’t know if it really serves any purpose to compare McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, irresistable as the comparison is. But it’s always been striking to me how much Rumsfeld appeared to want to avoid what he considered to be McNamara’s chief mistakes. Concede that troop levels in Iraq were too low? Why, that merely sets the stage for an endless and politically untenable series of escalations. Concede that strategy had gone off-course? Why, that merely sets the stage for the press picking the strategy to death. Concede that you made mistakes? Why, that merely positions you as a vain and irresponsible know-nothing. None of this is to say that Rumsfeld’s errors look better than McNamara’s — judging which of two train wrecks is the worse one is academic — only to warn that an attempt to avoid the disasters of the past can steer us into disasters of our own, because the world is an evil and inscrutible place.

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