Robert S. McNamara: Master of War


You almost get the feeling from today’s masterful obit in the Times of Robert McNamara, the Vietnam War architect who died Monday at 93, that he was so troubled by the tens of thousands of corpses that resulted from his many grievous mistakes that he paid for his sins.

Reporter Tim Weiner eloquently describes the former defense secretary drifting through the streets of Washington in the late 90s “wearing the expression of a haunted man…stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind …wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”

But as one who forcibly rejected his offer of a free trip to Southeast Asia in the late 60s, and saw others not so fortunate return with their own haunted expressions, or not at all, the image of McNamara plagued by his own demons hardly suffices.

For those of us who want – as Bob Dylan urged — to stand over McNamara’s grave to make sure that he’s dead, there’s a far more satisfying portrait contained in Paul Hendrickson’s great 1996 account,”The Living: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of A Lost War.”

Hendrickson recounts those whose lives were shattered by their service in McNamara’s war, like lance corporal and Silver Star winner James C. Farley, the chopper door gunner whose wrenching sobs were captured by Life Magazine; and those who protested against it, like Norman Morrison, the Quaker who fatally set himself afire outside McNamara’s Pentagon window in November, 1965.

And then there’s the story of the unnamed brother of two Vietnam draftees who tells Hendrickson how, one night in 1972, he almost got even for all of us, when he got McNamara alone on a Martha’s Vineyard ferry as the then head of the World Bank was headed for a vacation:

“I didn’t say a word, you know, no here’s to Rolling Thunder, sir, or, this one’s for the Gulf of Tonkin, you lying sack of crap. Nope, nothing like that. I just grabbed him. I got him by the belt and the shirt collar, right below his throat. I had him over, too. He was halfway over the side. He would have gone, another couple seconds. He was just kind of hanging there in the dark, clawing for the railing. I remember he screamed, ‘Oh, my God, no.'”

McNamara, a mountain climber into his 70s, never lost his grip on the railing. Calmer heads intervened. The attacker escaped. But it’s a gratifying image – the master of war dangling over the side, the dark waters of Buzzard’s Bay below. It adds a little context to that picture of the man with the untucked shirt and frayed running shoes wandering the streets of the nation’s capital.