The fog of terror

Jan 28, 2004 at 12:00 am

Imagine that you came home to find that your next door neighbor had built a pyramid of human heads on his front lawn, and was out there carefully inspecting it.

When you, stunned and shocked beyond belief, ask the meaning of all this, he tells you earnestly the real challenge was to stack the heads so that the pile doesn’t collapse, and especially how crucial it was to do so in a way that the bones collapse into and interlock with each other as the flesh decays.

Whipping out color-coded computer printouts, he explains that he has spent a long time constructing mathematical models that show with absolute precision how to place the heads. “The trick is using children’s smaller heads at certain points,” he says.

Finally, you recover enough to blurt, “But, Bob, this is criminal insanity.”

Pausing for an instant, he reflects. “Well, yes, you could say that.” he concedes, “That’s probably true, but that isn’t really relevant, and besides the president wanted me to do this. You know, the last president and I had concluded building this would be wrong, but the new president said we needed to send a message.”

That man, Robert Strange McNamara (yes, that’s his real middle name) was this nation’s secretary of defense for seven years, and that is essentially exactly what he did, except that his pyramid had, he says with typical McNamara precision, 3.4 million Vietnamese heads. He doesn’t mention the 58,000 American skulls.

That’s one of the many fascinating revelations in Errol Morris’s superb new documentary, The Fog of War, perhaps the most important movie I have seen in a long time. Last weekend it was at the Detroit Film Theatre, but it is sure to be around town in the next few weeks. I hesitate to say this, but it is a movie everyone in this nation needs to see, especially anyone too young to actually remember Vietnam.

The film makes it clear that McNamara was, and is, so perfectly rational that he is insane, in the same way that the legions of bureaucrats who plotted the mundane details of the Holocaust were insane. Essentially, the most frightening thing about him is his total amorality, coupled with a calm, rational, bizarrely upbeat demeanor.

This wasn’t exactly a secret when he was in power. Yet while some people saw the insanity, even then, even his critics seldom called Robert McNamara immoral. For that, he would have to have been caught in bed with his secretary, say. Frankly, this is perhaps the greatest failing of ethics — and of religion — in modern-day America. We now equate the concept of “morality” almost entirely with sexual behavior.

We don’t even use “immorality” in connection with murder much anymore. As a result, tens of millions of citizens actually believe the president who engaged in embarrassing high-school fumblings with an eager young girl is morally worse than the president who started a war that has killed thousands, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, has no end in sight, and who is still lying about why he did so.

George Bush’s scorecard is yet to be completed. However, the case can be made that McNamara is, in fact, the most evil American of our time, a man whose evil was masked by a brilliant mind and a boringly “normal” personality.

Forty years ago, he stood out for his brilliance in an administration of such dazzling talents that it inspired David Halberstam’s book, The Best and The Brightest. Today, at 87, McNamara seems eerily still in full command of his mental faculties, even though, as The Washington Post noted, he now looks like Gollum in a suit.

Why do I use the term “evil” for him? This is a man who, by his own admission, concluded early on that the United States couldn’t possibly win in Vietnam, but kept on pushing the war and lying to the nation for three long years. He must have had some shadow of a soul; in late 1967, Lyndon Johnson, concerned that his defense secretary was at last starting to crack up, gently fired him and sent him to the World Bank.

Now we are in another war, for equally murky reasons. McNamara refuses to draw parallels, though he does say we shouldn’t wage a unilateral war (!) and that it is very important to understand the people we are fighting.

Why, he reveals that when he visited Vietnam in 1995, he learned for the first time that the Vietnamese regarded this as a war against colonialism, not a war for international communism! “Why didn’t someone tell me?” he seems to be asking.

Many tried; he wouldn’t listen. Robert McNamara, whiz-kid president of Ford Motor Co., always knew everything. Now, there is something terrifying about seeing him babble earnestly.

He says he might have made mistakes that sent 100,000 men off to die, and maybe even repeated some, but hey, “the trick is not to repeat the same mistake four or five times.” He might be talking about golf.

Today there are other men who sit in some of the same rooms Bobby Strange once inhabited, men evidently as cocksure as he was, perhaps even more so, waging war. They don’t tell you much about it, but they are doing it with your money, and in your name.


Dean’s Scream: Want the real story behind the national media reaction to Howard’s holler after his disappointing showing in Iowa? Here it is: The “talking head consensus” is that the governor just isn’t up to the job. The media did the same thing to Michigan Gov. George Romney in 1968 after he said the generals had given him “the greatest brainwashing” on Vietnam. Soon after he was laughed out of the presidential race, the entire nation began to realize we’d all had a trip to the lobotomy laundry.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]