Monday, July 6, 2009

The Fog of War

Tonight I had "a driveway moment" or rather "a garage moment" with NPR, Terry Gross playing her interview with Robert McNamara shortly after he published his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, followed by her interview with filmmaker Errol Morris of The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. That was a fabulous documentary, very brave and complicated, paradoxical, yes, somehow evoking a fog.

I ran in from the garage and turned on the radio on the kitchen counter, moving from my daughter's pop station back to WGLT, the local NPR affiliate, to hear the rest. Fresh in my mind is the Vietnam exhibit at the local history museum, a very thorough explanation and depiction of the larger context of the war and of its very real and personal effects on local people--soldiers, family, protesters, journalists--as well as the country and the world. I grew up during that time but was too young to understand it, or to protest it, though I knew something was wrong about it. I have spoken since to veterans, seen the documentary, read some of the literature that emerged from that difficult time, seen some of the feature films.

McNamara's agony impressed me, as did his loyalty to the president who asked him to serve, Kennedy, and then the president who took over, Johnson, and to our country. He really believed, as I did, growing up, that a nuclear war would be the end of the world as we know it, and that the Cold War was a troubling thing, and I see better now, "in retrospect," how this must have factored into his difficult decisions to support a war that troubled him. I was moved in the interview when he spoke of the Quaker who burned himself under McNamara's window to protest the war. Here was an action like that of the Tibetan monk who burned himself to draw attention to the war. Before that, so many Americans went blithely on, not realizing the trouble.

Poor McNamara. What a dilemma, seeing the war as "unwinnable" and still sending soldiers to it, knowing about Agent Orange, and still exposing soldiers and civilians to it. What a weight of trouble and evil. But he must have felt the alternative was even worse. Hard to know what he thought--that fog again.

Anyway, now he'll rest in peace.

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