From Liberty Street: Atmosphere and Attitude

John Turner

I belatedly saw The Fog of War last Saturday night on The History Channel. It's a film many people have told me I should see but somehow it had got past me till this past weekend. My friends were right. I should have seen it before now.

I can't say it actually taught me anything new but it did give such an emphasis to many things I understand that they came to be almost something different from what they had been.

I have known, for example, for quite a while that many of the men who conduct our national affairs are fools. But the precise nature of their foolishness -- what really goes on in their heads -- has remained a mystery. This film didn't fully solve the mystery but it did clear away some of the rubbish blocking a solution.

Perhaps the largest pile of garbage obstructing our path to a rational future is the notion that degrees from prestigious universities and the ability to throw around the names of thinkers constitutes education. Robert McNamara has long been called one of our best and brightest, but if that's true, then God help us. We are doomed. The man can't think and that's because it has never occurred to him to inquire into what thinking is.

When the interviewer asked him whether the dissent during the war changed his thinking then or subsequently, he answered he didn't think it had. And then he said something to the effect that we were in the Cold War and that Vietnam was simply a Cold War activity. That was it. That's how he thought about it then and that's how he thinks about it now -- or at least as recently as 2001. Since we were in the Cold War there was no possibility for him to think outside the metaphors or assumptions of the Cold War. Did so-called Communism really pose a threat to the United States? Did the notion that Vietnam was a domino make any sense? Was the killing of hundreds of thousands of people justified by the existing conditions in the world? Mr. McNamara didn't ask himself those questions because he was in the Cold War -- and that was that. And he was one of the best and the brightest.

When the question of Agent Orange came up, McNamara said he wasn't sure he had authorized its use, but he implied that if he had been asked to do it, he would have because the use of substances like Agent Orange is a part of war and we were at war. That was it. Since we were at war,  Agent Orange was not so much justified as simply inevitable. It had to be used because it was there to be used. Nobody could have been expected to do anything about that.

One of the "lessons" the film put forward (I wasn't, by the way, quite sure whose lessons these were) was that in order to do good you may have to do evil. But how much evil? Only the evil that's proportionate. It sounds like a rational answer but men like McNamara never tell us what proportionality is. He seemed to imply that it's okay, in war, to take the lives of hundreds of thousands but it's not  right to risk a nation. That would be madness, he said. But he didn't say what a nation is other than the lives of the people living in it. If he had some theory about the nation as an entity independent of its people, he gave no hint of it.

There were certain questions he wouldn't answer because he just didn't want to get into them. And those were the questions most vital to an understanding of what happened. Over and again, a certain blankness came over his face, as though his mind had simply shut down. He could talk all night about maximizing efficiency but what this efficiency served he didn't want to inquire about. He could argue with the president about what would work and what wouldn't work but the question of what the nation ought to be, or what the Constitution allowed or advised, was beyond the pale. That was the president's business, not his.

You can call this kind of lucubration thinking if you wish. But if you do, you're committing an abomination against language.

The point is, Robert McNamara's mind works like the minds of most of our government officials. We have created a system that will not admit people of thought. Thinking violates governmental atmosphere. The mind must be foggy about anything genuinely serious if one is to participate.

This is what we the people want. This is what we the people have. And its consequences are what we the people are going to endure.

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