Self-reliance may mean you believe what others say about your expertise.

The “son of a bitch“ still won't say why he never denounced the Vietnam war after he and Johnson parted ways.

Book of the named dead: the U.S. government acknowledges only the 58,000 American deaths in Vietnam as people with identities.

In reflecting on counter-factuals, McNamara has become a dove in later life. What effect can that possibly have on today’s military and political hawks?

Public figures answer the questions they wish had been asked of them and evade the tough questions.

When appointed as Secretary, McNamara was lauded as “brainy,” but reason has limits.

Agent orange was one of the “innovations” implemented by the big minds at the Pentagon.

Fred’s opportunity to make a career out of state execution finally led to his downfall.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Fred alone on the road: having destroyed his own career through aiding the Holocaust revisionists, he now faces an existential crisis of sorts.

Bob alone on the road, with plenty of time to think.


The lessons of history

Errol Morris is a tragedian, in the classic sense of the word. His protagonists are tragic heroes with the usual human-all-too-human hamartia, most notably hubris. The virtues and vices of these people are inextricably intertwined, and they fall because they have come to believe in the expertise ascribed to them by other, equally ignorant, people. Because McNamara and Leuchter had succeeded by dint of their own self-reliance, they finally came to believe in themselves to such a degree that they ended up in regrettable and in some ways ridiculous predicaments. Morris’ approach to these characters is to attempt to understand their situation from their own perspective, rather than simply accepting the received view and denouncing them outright. Morris is himself something of a detective, setting out like Sherlock Holmes to learn “the true story” about his widely maligned protagonists, who emerge not as evil, but profoundly misguided.

"No one knowingly does evil” are words sometimes ascribed to Socrates, and suggestive of a correlative question as well: what precisely is the moral judgment, the denunciation of these unfortunate people supposed to accomplish? What is the point of condemning Robert McNamara and Fred Leuchter, when it is obvious that no rational person would ever willingly choose to be either one of them? These men stumbled into holes that they themselves had dug, and try though they may to pull themselves out of the mud, it is simply too late. In the epilogue to The Fog of War, McNamara refuses to explain why he did not speak out against the Vietnam War after he and President Johnson had parted ways:

“I’m not going to say any more than I have. These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble... A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I’m a son of a bitch.”

McNamara knows that he cannot bring back the lives destroyed during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, nor the many others who died after he and Johnson had set in motion a military machine that consumed millions more. He may wish, on some level, that Kennedy had never persuaded him to accept the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara, though tempted by glory and fame, was never coerced, and so he must live with the knowledge that he alone bears responsibility for having done what he did.

In a trailer to the DVD release of The Fog of War, McNamara offers ten lessons to posterity. These lessons differ significantly from the direct quotes presented by Morris as “lessons” within The Fog of War. McNamara’s own lessons are caveats to those who would wage unilateral war, militarize outerspace, and attack preemptively to thwart hypothetical dangers lying in the future. But McNamara has apparently failed to grasp that, to the people who make decisions about such matters, his advice falls on deaf ears, just as did the words of war critics during the period of his own tenure as Secretary of Defense. In other words, McNamara seems never really to have understood the epistemological lesson that Morris’ films convey and the former Secretary himself relays, viz., that human fallibility is insurmountable. Even after having acknowledged in his memoirs that the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was a regrettable mistake, McNamara nonetheless feels qualified to apply his own expertise, this time, he thinks, in virtue of his age:

“Historians don’t really like to deal with counterfactuals, with what might have been. They want to talk about history. ‘And how the hell do you know, McNamara, what might have been? Who knows?’ Well, I know certain things.”

Why should McNamara’s mistakes, which contributed to the needless and premature deaths of millions of human beings, qualify him to be the first war critic in history whose exhortations U.S. leaders might finally heed?

Interestingly enough, in one of McNamara’s many efforts to endear himself to his audience he blithely confesses:

“One of the lessons I learned early on: never say ‘never.’ Never, never, never. Never say ‘never.’ And secondly, never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It’s a very good rule.”

Should we, then, believe anything that McNamara says, anymore than people should have believed him when he gave press conferences extolling the “progress” being made in Vietnam? Are we really to believe that McNamara thinks that the people in positions such as he once occupied might have any interest whatsoever in his “lessons”? Can he possibly believe that the hawks are likely to modify their policies in the light of McNamara’s own late-life conversion to dovedom? Perhaps not, since, near the end of the interview, he frankly laments how otiose is his entire project to transmit his “lessons” to future generations:

“I’m not so naïve or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn’t that we aren’t rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.”

If McNamara truly believes that there is no way to stop people from waging war, because they are going to do what they are going to do whatever he and other war critics say, then why does he bother saying anything at all?

McNamara’s critics answer along the lines of Van Pelt’s explanation of the existence of Holocaust revisionists: it’s all about vanity, in the end. McNamara wants to believe that he can salvage something of his life, make amends with his past, and eventually pass away having contributed to rather than diminished the world in which he lived.

“At my age, 85, I’m at an age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on.”

McNamara’s tragic flaw, an admixture of vanity and pride, will accompany him to his grave. Still, Morris suggests, McNamara is no worse in this respect than is anyone else. The difference between McNamara and most other people is that McNamara applied his fallible intellect within the framework of the war machine and so his errors led directly to the deaths of fellow human beings. McNamara’s case amplifies the tragedy of the human condition, by illustrating how, through the very humanness that we all share, some people end up by stripping other people of that very humanity.

At the end of Mr. Death, Fred Leuchter offers a “lesson” of his own:

“In 1957, I actually had the opportunity for the first time to sit in the chair. There’s a legend that goes with the chair, relative to prison personnel and their families. There was a youngster, much the same age as I was when I sat in the chair, whose father was a guard at the institution, who toured the institution, and who sat in the electric chair. Some ten or twelve years later, he was executed in that same chair for the commission of a murder during an armed robbery. And so the legend grew that prison officials shouldn’t allow their children to sit in the electric chair. I kind of sat in the chair waiting for something to happen. But, some twenty years later, I wound up making execution equipment instead of being the person the execution equipment was used on. So maybe the legend got turned around, and maybe we created a new legend, and some good came out of it after all.”

Protagonists in each of these two films observe that, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” and we do tend to regard our latest stories as the most accurate, for they are based upon our latest interpretation of what appears to us to be the most up-to-date information. The perennial epistemological problem in the moment is the at once trivial and profound tautology, that one simply does not know what one does not know. Even in a case as ghastly as the Germans under the Third Reich, many perfectly normal, law-abiding citizens no doubt persuaded themselves to believe something less outrageous than that their disappearing neighbors had been gassed to death, a nightmare which even the most grisly of horror fiction writers would be hard-pressed to invent.

Left with other people’s accounts of what happened before us, we make our way about this confusing world, all the while writing in our minds new revisionist texts, just as Fred Leuchter did in the caves of Auschwitz, trying to answer the question whether this place could have really been used to gas innocent human beings to death. Just as Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson attempted to defend the nation against tyranny and aggression through the use of rapid-fire bombing and agent orange. Just as Robert Jan Van Pelt retraced the steps of Fred Leuchter to ascertain exactly what he did while at Auschwitz, committing sacrilege by bungling about that sacred place. Just as Ernst Zündel tried to save the world from what he wants to believe is the false story of the Holocaust. And just as Errol Morris did in making these films...

Continued: Notes

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