A few years ago I met Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and World Bank President, an architect of both the firebombing of Japan and the Vietnam War. McNamara is a very old man now, and has devoted the last years of his life to explaining his actions.
A few months ago, in Cambodia, I wrote an article called "Accountability," in which I struggled to come to terms with American responsibility for the Cambodian genocide and, more broadly, with the question of how well-meaning men can commit horrible, irrational acts of destruction. "Accountability" is one of my most heartfelt pieces of writing. It was pretty well received and got translated into Italian and published in Milan.
Today I got an e-mail from Frank Oatman, a family friend who led my tour to Bhutan. Mr. Oatman is a naturalist, a poet, a former professor, a former soldier and a role model of mine. As it turns out, he also has some compelling insights into the question of accountibility for men like McNamara, and the consequences of political deception and American arrogance.
With Mr. Oatman's kind permission, I'm copying his e-mail to me below. I hope you read it. For those who haven't read my original "Accountibility" piece, here is the link: READ Accountibility
I'd love to hear more opinions. Comments are especially welcome on this post.
Finally got around to reading your article from Cambodia in 'Rucksackwanderer.'
Very good -- and affective that it was written in and from Cambodia, where the direct results of American arrogance and willfulness are so clear.
I concur with your conclusions. As with your doubts about what good prosecuting such losers and/or ill-advisors to governments really does.
I too met McNamara -- via my cousin Lyndon Johnson, when McNamara was serving the Johnson administration and I was a lowly First Lieutenant in the US Army, getting radicalized by top-secret briefing papers on VietNam, which the General for whom I was working made sure I saw.
It was clear in those papers (and to General McKee himself, I think, who wanted me to see them) that McNamara and the Defense Department, indeed the entire American administration of my sad Cousin, were systematically and intentionally, consciously deceiving the American people and (I think) to some degree as well the American Congress.
So don't be too soft, however much a gentleman he came across to you in college, on McNamara. He and my cousin the President knew what they were doing, I can tell you categorically and with certainity from the top-secret government documents I was seeing in mid-l960's).
His greatest criminality (as my own Cousin's) was the subversion of the American constitution and the most basic tenents of democracy. We cannot sustain a real democracy in this country, in any country, unless the electorate (and their duly elected representatives) are honestly and correctly informed.
The lies of that administration are repeated in nearly exact ways by the present Bush administration. Such deception of the electrorate is what, ultimately, allows for such disgraces (and, yes, war crimes) as illegally bombing Cambodia, invading Iraq under totally false pretenses, aiding the Contras, etc., etc., etc.
I tried to read McNamara's book, largely a justification of his actions while in government. I was finally disgusted by it and didn't, couldn't finish. He remains a liar, a deceiver -- sadly, I feel, of himself as well as of others.
You met, Tim, a true evil-doer."
- G Frank Oatman Jr.
Labels: Cambodia, McNamara