Robert McNamara and the arguable value of government
HERE’S a big question to ponder: in general, has government worked to advance our welfare, or to retard our efforts at advancement?
Not “the government”; not any particular regime in this country, or any other, but “government” – the machinery by which virtually all human society is regulated – in general. Has it been good for us, or bad?
It is, of course, and vast and practically imponderable subject, for government in the general sense is virtually universal, just as it is accepted – again, virtually universally – that all society needs to be ordered, ruled.
And the philosophical climate that gave rise to the over-arching theories of government has probably now evolved to a different, perhaps higher, level of intellectualism. Do we still debate with any real seriousness the conflicting “merits” of utopian socialism as opposed to Marxism, as opposed to democratic rationalism, as opposed oligarchy or theocracy or autocratic monarchy. As time passes, the idea of democracy seems to be gaining dominance as at least the most acceptable - if not yet a perfect - form of government.
But having accepted the need for government and having also accepted - at least in the increasingly prevailing western world – the limited virtues of democracy, we ought to ask ourselves from time to time just what is entailed in the delivery of government.
This train of thought was sparked by the death of former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who died on July 6, aged 93.
Now, McNamara was many things; a distinguished academic, a brilliant corporate executive, he was head of the World Bank for 13 years, But without a shadow of a doubt his lasting legacy - and that for which he will be most remembered - is that of the “architect” of US involvement in the ultimately-disastrous Vietnam war. During his seven years in the office of Secretary of Defense, first under President Kennedy then Lyndon Johnson, more than 17,000 American servicemen - and probably more than 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers and civilians – lost their lives in that futile conflict.
And by the end of the war, more than 58,000 Americans, and more than a million Vietnamese, had perished. It was a war. That’s what happens in wars. People get killed in very large numbers – and over many millennia, the human race appears to have become resigned to that periodic and endlessly-repeated reality.
But the unusual thing about McNamara is that he came ultimately to believe that America’s involvement in Vietnam had been a mistake; that no military solution to the “problem” of Vietnam was possible and that a negotiated outcome was the only option. More than that, he came to believe that US involvement in the conflict had been “wrong”. It took him 20 years after leaving the Defense Secretary’s office to say as much, but when he did so, a floodgate opened.
He said he’d realised even when he was still serving in that office that the war was unwinnable. And he went on to unburden himself of some other equally distressing revelations. The conduct of those in charge of US strategic bombing operations against the Japanese at the end of World War 11 – most notably himself and USAF General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay – were war crimes. Had Japan been victorious, McNamara said, both and LeMay would have been tried as war criminals.
In a way, it’s sort of refreshing that a leading government figure should admit so frankly to having made errors, to having behaved in a way which could be judged to be not only mistaken but immoral. It’s a rare enough thing.
But what an admission to have made! By his mistakes million of people (if you count the “unjustified” casualties WWII) millions of people lost their lives for no reason. And it ought to be noted, McNamara was not apologising, just admitting to mistakes. He did his level best at the time, based on existing intelligence and on the prevailing moral precepts, to discharge his duties as diligently, as efficiently, as best as possible at the time. So in that sense, he owes absolutely no apology and none should have been expected.
But then, we get back to the idea of government. We confer an almighty responsibility on government, do we not? We give them, in time of war and at other times, absolute power – power over life and death - even though every government is bound to be fallible. We consent to the authority of government, even though from time to time, some of its agents may deliver us into absolute catastrophe. We give that authority to ordinary men and women, hoping they will value our welfare as much as they value their own.
Yesterday in England, they carried home the bodies of eight servicemen killed on one day in Afghanistan. In America, and in this country too, the sorrow of similar loss has been endured. And at present, we’re still collectively of the view that the war in that wretched place has to be waged, that the Taliban has to be defeated militarily.
Let’s hope that, at some time in the future, we are not told by some leading government figure that the effort was in vain, that we should have tried something different.
One of Robert Strange McNamara’s biographers, David Halberstam, said of his subject that: “He was – there is no kinder or gentler word for it - a fool.”
The greater truth, in all probability, is that wisdom came to McNamara - as it come many – way too late.
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