Death Has No Escalation

Categories: history
With the recent death of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, perhaps it's time to return to two famous works about the man, created thirty years apart: David Halberstam's excellent book, The Best and the Brightest, and Errol Morris' chilling and moving documentary, The Fog of War.

Halberstam worked for the New York Times as a daily correspondent in Vietnam (alongside colleague Neil Sheehan, author of the other seminal Vietnam anti-war book, A Bright Shining Lie), and after returning to the states and writing a long-form piece for Harper's magazine, he embarked on the years of interviews and research that led to Brightest's publishing in 1972.

His work is exhaustive. While some passages about the schooling and family history of the key players can seem extraneous, most of the background information he provides is indispensable. One might wonder why the book suddenly reverses course to talk about China during WWII and up through 1949, but Halberstam would do the reader a disservice by ignoring it.

One can't appreciate the Democratic party's terror at losing Vietnam — and commitment to trying to keep it, even beyond the bounds of probability — without understanding that Joe McCarthy and hawkish Republicans successfully accused Democrats, "pinkos" and crypto-communists in the State Department of "losing" China to the Maoists. (Democrats had involved the country in WWI, WWII and Korea, but this event is really the origin story of the Democratic party as supposedly an effete body incapable of seeing things through and making the hard decisions.) Officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, thus chastened by losing a country their party — and America — never actually had, were driven to extremes of hawkishness that might otherwise have been reexamined.

Worse, those who could have done the reexamining weren't there to look at the data. Tarnished by accusations of communist sympathy, America's best far-east experts had been booted from State for their imagined traitorousness about China. When Dien Bien Phu fell in 1954 and when America's ideological and material commitment to Vietnam began, those who might have counseled our non-involvement in Vietnam's war of liberation were not there to counter voices calling for a war of containment against the "Domino Theory" spread of communism. Later, as American commitment increased, those voices were still absent, leaving essentially a single rigid theory of Cold War containment to explain everything about the Vietnam conflict without a counterbalance.

Into this ideologically rigid milieu strode Robert Strange McNamara, a man who had overseen efficiency improvements and applications of statistical analysis to both America's Pacific bombing campaigns in WWII and later to the Ford Motor Company. Because McNamara was such a dynamic force in the creation of U.S. policy in Vietnam, here again Halberstam's extensive profiling is welcome. McNamara exemplified the whiz kid "Best and Brightest" storyline as well (or better) than anyone. Accustomed to the implacability of analysis and logic to see him through, he was almost uniquely incapable of understanding an enemy that fought on an idea that defied it. And unaccustomed as he was to failure, he was also uniquely incapable of realizing when it was best to acknowledge its inevitability and to attempt the best compromise with an inexorable conclusion.

While his faith in numbers and efficiency made him a giant as a Defense Secretary — effectively revolutionizing the standards of analysis within the DoD as well as the prestige and power of that civilian office over the insular and fraternal military orders — it also did him a disservice in terms of appreciating the conflict he was prosecuting. Field commanders padded statistics and provided distorted pictures of the conflict that deferred a reexamination of our premises for years. General William Westmoreland's affinity for kill counts played into McNamara's statistical appreciations too comfortably, delaying the eventually more successful (although this is another huge argument) hearts-and-minds strategy of his replacement, Creighton Abrams.

McNamara himself came to these realizations too late, a point he emphasizes in Morris' 

Fog of War, a roughly 90-minute documentary that features his staring into a camera, alone in a room, responding to questions posed by Morris from a remote location. The effect is instantly jarring and moving. McNamara stares beseechingly at times, as if the camera can be some kind of intercessory tool that can absolve errors. Occasionally his eyes fill with tears.

He never offers a full mea culpa for his decisions in Vietnam, but he comes as close as anyone could reasonably expect. The documentary focuses thematically around life lessons he wishes to impart, and all are damning of his conduct in WWII and Vietnam.

In a particularly shattering piece, images of firebombed Japanese cities appear on the screen, with the numbers of dead listed as well as the names of American cities whose populations corresponded in size at the time. The beautiful Philip Glass soundtrack pulses relentlessly, as the true scope of one million burned Japanese civilians unfolds.

Here is a trailer, for those interested:

McNamara discloses that General Curtis LeMay said they'd both have been tried as war criminals if they'd lost the war. McNamara agrees, a particularly powerful moment, considering the unlikelihood that we'll ever hear an admission like this from an American leader again. Imagine it—imagine being present to hear such a thing, and if anyone else would dare breathe it. Nixon is dead; Kissinger already can't enter dozens of countries without arrest. Those responsible for the Iraq war have only luck to guide them in this respect, but they too will forever have to guard their own words. Imagine the scope of such admission.

While McNamara does not name names, and while he takes care not to make any definitive statements about it, it becomes obvious that some of his commentary reflects on America's War on Terror. He clearly doesn't mean to brand anyone a war criminal, but the weight of his almost-confessions, his choking back tears and the lessons he insists we've yet to learn as a nation come as a passive kind of indictment of our current conduct.

The sensation both Halberstam's book and Morris' documentary produce effortlessly is a kind of awesome despair. Both are beautifully compiled and executed, both in style and in substance. Halberstam's writing and his information, and the sparseness of Morris' interviews — the soundtrack he chose and the footage he uses — show a really elegant economy. While Halberstam opts to relate mountains of data, the means by which he does so utilizes an accessible journalistic efficiency, just as Morris' keen editing makes wonderfully detailed archival footage seem like everything you needed to know and nothing more.

One imagines their economy would have appealed to their subject. As for McNamara, there is ample material for both the polemicist and the tragedian. That someone could be so brilliant and so wrong merits something like pity. That this openness of character and drama comes at the expense of millions of Japanese, Vietnamese and American lives can still evoke pity and, often, justifiably, rage.


A man once immolated himself outside McNamara's office. Heaven knows if we'll ever fully understand the worth of his statement.

About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.


Since 1997, you’ve been coming to to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.