When I first saw Stanley Kubrick's dark, comedy classic, Dr. Strangelove, about a mentally unstable general who orders a nuclear strike on Russia, I never really gave a second thought to military generals having world-destroying powers at their fingertips because comedy often relies on the absurd. It took some time after seeing Dr. Strangelove to realize that this "absurd" scenario was completely plausible before JFK's Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who died today at the age of 93, closed that loophole.
Yet, what history will most remember about McNamara is that he was the anti-communist hawk who helped escalate the Vietnam War during his tenure as Secretary of Defense which made him an enemy of the anti-war movement, to say the least. Toward the end of his term, however, the doubts about the war began to set in, but it wouldn't be until later in life that he began to publicly address the situation and admit that the escalation of the war in Vietnam was wrong, which, justifiably, didn't win him much praise from Vietnam veterans and their families. A New York Times editorial would declare, "His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books of our dead soldiers."
Initially, McNamara declined the post of Secretary of Defense, telling President Kennedy that he was not qualified, which led Kennedy to reply, "I don't believe there's any school for Presidents, either." And it's true - there are no schools for Presidents or Secretaries of Defense. But there is history and cultural understanding. And the lessons of Robert McNamara, which was brilliantly documented by Errol Morris in The Fog of War, should be a prerequisite for anyone involved in planning or inheriting a war.
"Nobody gets to do over his mistakes, least of all Robert McNamara. But perhaps the memory of this brilliant and tragic man will keep us from being too certain of our own judgment -- and encourage us to consider, even when we feel most confident, the possibility that we could be wrong."
- David Ignatius(Washington Post)