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Robert McNamara & Ecclesiastes

July 8, 2009

robert mcnamaraI truthfully don’t have much interest in all the Michael Jackson hype this week. The more interesting passing, to me, was of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for JFK and LBJ.

I’ve read biographies of both presidents, and McNamara plays a large part in both their presidencies. Clark Clifford said he belonged to the very small group of non-presidents who held Washington DC in the palm of their hands.

A few years ago, I watched the documentary “The Fog of War,” on the life and lessons of Robert McNamara. Reviled for his role in escalating Vietnam, the documentary (by Errol Morris) was released around the time the US invaded Iraq. The lessons McNamara shared, such as empathy for one’s enemies, were poignant. The entire documentary was riveting.

In reading the obits on McNamara this week (some excellent ones here, here, and here, the last one written by Erroll Morris), I was reminded that McNamara was, in many ways, a modern “Qohelet,” or “The Teacher” from the book of Ecclesiastes.

Qohelet–traditionally ascribed to an elderly Solomon–was The King who had it all, and who vainly looked for meaning. “The Fog of War” portrayed McNamara in this light, a man who also had it all:

  • He was brilliant. His academic achievement made him the youngest prof ever at Harvard Business school.
  • He had great success—he was the first president of Ford not named Ford.
  • He accumulated great wealth as a high-powered executive.
  • He was one of most powerful men in the world—Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, for 7 years: everything from Bay of Pigs & Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam.
  • During his time as Secretary of Defense, he successfully reorganized, streamlined, and systematized Defense for the modern era.
  • He then headed the World Bank for 13 years, trying to improve conditions in 3rd world countries, and he succeeded in many respects.

In “The Fog of War,” he is 85 years old, totally lucid, and looking back on his life and the 20th century in hindsight. He acknowledges that he, & those he served, often made mistakes. No Dick Cheney denial-and-spin here. He’s an old man with nothing left to prove, and is startlingly honest. He says, you do what you have to do. Of course I made mistakes. It’s impossible not too, and kind of shrugs his shoulders. He acknowledges the hundreds of thousands of people who died on his watch. He demonstrates the heaviness of carrying all those souls around with him. It’s hard not to see his tenure with the World Bank as some sort of penance for his “war crimes,” (his words).

And yet he stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed as a “bad guy.” He won’t have anything to do with the reductionistic white hat/black hat binary of the anti-war movement. With the perspective that perhaps only old age can give, he wants his critics to ask what they would have done. He successfully averted all-out nuclear war. He felt bound to serve his presidents. You repeatedly get the sense that he felt trapped by circumstances and history, that he was perplexed by questions that his vaunted systems analysis and number-crunching couldn’t answer for him.

He quotes T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploring

And at the end of our exploration

We will return to where we started

And know the place for the first time –T.S. Eliot

McNamara fought wars and worked for peace. He worked for the rich elite and for the forgotten poor. And at the end of his life, he essentially throws up his hands: Did we learn anything? Did we get anywhere? At the end of all this seeking, all this questioning, all this “trying on” of different personas, what did we gain?  For all of our efforts, all of our striving, are we all just ground down by the inevitable cycle of life and death?

Like Qohelet, McNamara had it all: the smarts, the money, the power, and time to fulfill every desire. But even he could not escape hevel. There was still meaninglessness; the shortness/brevity of life; the injustice.

We can learn from the life of McNamara, to stop chasing after the wind, to remember that despite all the advantages the world has to offer, everything is meaningless “under the sun.” I don’t know what McNamara’s personal faith was, but I hope that he found comfort in the fear of the Lord, which was Qohelet’s final conclusion.

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