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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fog and Drums

Robert McNamara, subject of the Simon and Garfunkel song "A Simple Desultory Phillipic, or How I was McNamara'd into Submission"*, is dead. He also, in his time, was head of the World Bank, president of Ford Motor Company, and Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson.

On the Fourth of July, I was listening to an old mix I made, years and years ago. It had The Clash's "Sean Flynn" on it, which may very well be my favorite song by them. The song is about the son of Errol Flynn, who went to Vietnam during the war, and was last seen riding his motorcycle toward enemy lines. Whatever became of him remains unclear to this day.
A nice metaphor for the confusion and general psychedelic hell the whole enterprise seems to have been. The song itself sounds like a memory: all dub guitar wandering away into oblivion, echoing eternally. It sounds like something or someone that you're forgetting, with its repeated refrain of "The past is always a closing door..."

"You know he heard the drums of war/ each man knows what he's looking for..."

Did we maybe go there seeking oblivion? Knowing damn well we were seeking it? No: we were entirely rational and mathematical about it, only to realize later that maybe our entire thing was going away.
Or as Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon put it: "If the Twentieth Century has taught us anything, it's that the white man is through in Asia."

I've compared McNamara to William Tecumseh Sherman before. Both were businessmen who were called to duty specifically to quickly finish a war. Sherman responded by going the absurdly reductive route: he destroyed and burned everything in his path until he hit the sea. Then he went back and did it all over again.
McNamara was a little different. He wanted to inject a lot more in the way of calm, cool analysis into the entire war thing, and thought that there was no reason why science couldn't conquer a guerrilla force. The generals who reported to him would have preferred a Sherman-like option, and soon learned that lying to the Secretary was the easiest way to go.

That was McNamara's excuse for the rest of his life: they lied to me. But if he was so damn smart, why does he seem to have suddenly lost his objectivity and incisiveness on this one subject? If you're very, very good at examining all angles of a problem, you also can tell who isn't being straight with you.
And indeed, he did have an adversarial relationship with the Pentagon. Pretty much a weird mirror image of what Donald Rumsfeld had going on later, except that Rumsfeld was the one that wasn't thinking clearly, and the generals have sort of proved themselves to be the sane ones lately.

And he made the entirely valid point that morality takes on a rather different face in wartime. If killing is traditionally viewed as wrong, but war and conquest are the rule rather than the exception in history, you have yourself a sticky philosophical dilemma right out of the gate. The same holds true for the doctrine of killing as many people as possible to effect a quick end to the killing.
So now you have a question for your fine, fine mind: how to kill as many people as possible, but quickly, so as to lessen the general horror for humanity at large?
And there's that other piece of history coming back to intrude: McNamara's relationship with General Curtis LeMay.

LeMay was McNamara's superior in World War Two. LeMay was also concerned with ending a war quickly. He felt that the easiest way to achieve this was by more or less making it impossible to be alive in Japan until such time as they surrendered. Endless amounts of incendiary bombs on all the major population centers. Constant fire from above on a society largely built out of wood. It worked.
Now, later on, LeMay had the same idea for Vietnam. McNamara thought it a bad idea. Ultimately, LeMay left, and later tried to become Vice-President. He also is often quoted as saying that had the U.S. lost WWII, he and his staff would have been prosecuted as war criminals.

But they weren't, because they won. The U.S., strangely, was not winning in Vietnam. They just kept shovelling more and more troops at it, but to no avail. There was a creeping surrealism: how could this happen? The further into the thing they all got, the less it made sense, and the more the military establishment and especially the military contractors wanted total war. The nature of the mission became unclear to the point of incoherence.

The Clash, again:
"Rain on the leaves and the soldiers sing
you never ever hear anything..."

This became McNamara's nightmare as it became everybody else's. He later came to see that whole Domino Theory was idiotic, but by then the whole thing had taken on a life of its own. He knew the thing was wrong, and knew it was un-winnable. He said nothing, was soon to be gone.
Later on, he saw the same thing happening with Iraq. He said nothing publicly, though was candid about it to some interviewers, off the record.

The "Surge" in Iraq was a fantastic shadow of "Vietnamization", in that it was widely credited with winning a war that had not yet been won. The generals -in the case of the Surge- had quietly decided that while military objectives were still important, all that "hearts and minds" shit might just be more important. That building a working relationship with what community remains is the true job of those who are forced to go kill by silly goddamn theorists and politicians who know that the only thing their polity asks for is more blood.

So maybe there's hope. Maybe people do actually learn from history. Not like I've seen much evidence of it, but...

In any case, "The Fog of War" still stands as the final word on this. Watch Robert McNamara crumbling, physically, as he belatedly says what he really thinks. Hell, check this:

As he crumbled, toward the end of his life, he saw what remained of the edifice of his self-delusion crumbling, too. Not just the things he knew were bullshit but he couldn't contradict; but the things he had told himself, to keep himself sane. People always apologize too late.

*(The S&G song is actually making fun of Bob Dylan, and all who would make lame stabs at being political while also being under-informed. Doesn't really have shit to do with Bob McNamara at all.)



Blogger LadrĂ³n de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

The first time I saw "The Fog of War" I was disturbed not just by the words and images but the merging of McNamara's voice and the mechanical music of Phillip Glass. It sounded so familiar, but I couldn't pinpoint what it was that I'd heard before. Finally it occurred to me that it was like a mirror to the Laurie Anderson/William S. Burroughs collaboration on "Mister Heartbreak". Both speak with the same detached, delusional rhythm. Perhaps I should edit a mash up of the two.

12:10 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

A fine idea. Please do.

5:23 PM  
Blogger laurie01 said...

Creating such nice combination to create a beautiful music is so great. Many people who would like to learn how to play drums don't have the initiative to mix it with other percussion instruments. Nice job.:D

9:37 PM  

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