Echoes of the Present

Commentators in the past few days have tried to express what they think is the lesson of Robert McNamara’s career. But reading between the lines, it is not difficult to see that what they don’t know they know is how their comments reflect their thoughts about a more recently retired secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Moreover, their perceptions about the Vietnam War apply to the War in Iraq too closely to be coincidental.

As Bob Herbert put it in Tuesday’s New York Times: “Lyndon Johnson’s icy-veined, cold-visaged and rigidly intellectual point man for a war that sent thousands upon thousands of people (most of them young) to their utterly pointless deaths, has died at the ripe old age of 93.” No ambiguity here about Herbert’s judgment of the man.

He goes on to make explicit the parallels between the two wars: “None of these wars had clearly articulated goals or endgames. None were pursued with the kind of intensity and sense of common purpose and shared sacrifice that marked World War II.” He notes, as well, that the pursuit of both wars relied on the use of deceptive intelligence. (See After the War Was Over)

Other commentators have striven to be less heated, more balanced. Errol Morris, creator of an Academy Award winning documentary on the former Secretary of Defense, noted: “For me, the most telling moment in . . . “The Fog of War,” is when he says, ‘Perhaps rationality isn’t enough.’ His career was built on rational solutions, but in the end he realized it all might be for naught.” That is, Morris explains, focused on trying to prevent nuclear war, McNamara not only failed to see the kind of war he was actually fighting in Vietnam but also failed to appreciate its appalling cost.

Morris does not make it explicit, but again the parallel with Iraq is striking: a focus on large geopolitical issues similarly blinded Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration to specific truths about Iraq and prevented them from planning an appropriate war. (See McNamara in Context)

Philip Bobbitt, the brilliant author of The Shield of Achillies and, more recently, Terror and Consent, makes a comparable point about the limits of rationality: “his confidence in this sensible effort at reform [in the Pentagon] . . . blinded him to the need for a change in strategy in Southeast Asia.” But Bobbitt adds that “Mr. McNamara’s obsession with quantitative planning tended to make matters worse: though we killed more and more of the enemy, we were never able to protect civilians adequately.” Clearly, no one could miss that this is also a point about the Iraq War. In attempting to help the Iraqis, presumably in bringing them the benefits of democracy, we have inflicted extraordinary damage on the entire population. (See Calculus and Compassion)

It has been said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. It could be said just as well that we in the present are doomed to see history as a reflection of the present. What Herbert, Morris, and Bobbitt – like the rest of us – don’t know they know is how embedded in the present are their perceptions of the issues and dilemmas of the past.