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Published in The Hindu, India, July 5, 2009
Robert S. McNamara: An Appreciation

Published by Current on 2009-07-05

In my book, and in the view of millions of my generation, the post-World War Two Baby-Boom Generation, he was always Bomber Bob, Bob McNamara - Robert Strange McNamara -- the man who, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for the killing of millions in Vietnam and Cambodia more than four decades ago.

Of course, much later in life, well after those insane years of the Indochina conflict in which the United States participated without any sense of history or sensibility of local cultures, McNamara would publicly express some regret over his role as Defense Secretary in the administrations of Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson from 1961 to 1968. Regret, but never remorse.

And what good would have even remorse done, anyway? How do you bring back the 40,000 American soldiers who perished in that conflict, the thousands more who were maimed, and the millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians who died? How do you take back your role as the primary architect of a war that should never have occurred, let alone been sustained.

McNamara died yesterday at the age of 93. By conventional criteria, it was a long life of accomplishment. A Californian by birth, he went on to obtain an MBA from the Harvard School of Business. Hired by the Ford Motor Company, he was one of the 10 so-called "whiz kids," smart young executives who accelerated the automobile manufacturer's fortunes. McNamara was widely considered to invent a form of system analysis in business, something that he eventually applied to government - something that, to this day, is known as policy analysis in the corridors of power, a method through the obtaining and allocation of resources for decision-making is quantified and streamlined.

He took that system with him when President Johnson named him as president of the World Bank in 1968; there had been rumors that McNamara had had differences with Pentagon military leaders and that, in fact, he was leaning toward ending the bombing of Indochina, while U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, already a hawk, was becoming increasingly hawkish.

Moving from the Pentagon to the World Bank was as if the villainous Darth Vader of George Lucas's "Star Wars" suddenly had a metamorphosis - McNamara became the benign Luke Skywalker.

He traveled around the globe, proclaiming his concern for the dispossessed and the disease-ridden. He committed vast sums of development money to the very nations whose societal fabrics he'd been earlier responsible for shredding. He worked vigorously to draw attention to the endemic problem of river blindness, especially in Sub-Saharan countries in Africa. He took on the late Mahbub ul Haq, a Pakistani economist, as his developmental guru, and initiated the much-acclaimed annual World Development Report. He transformed the World Bank from a bloated behemoth into a bureaucracy with heart. He was always running, always peripatetic.

Perhaps McNamara did this, I think, because he seemed to be always trying to expunge his war days from his conscience. During an interview that I did with him, well after he had retired from the World Bank, McNamara bristled when I asked him about Vietnam. "That was an unfortunate war, and it's best relegated to history," he said to me. I don't think there was a trace of remorse in his voice; he spoke as he always did - firmly, crisply, and to the point.

When Susan Tolchin, a professor of political science at George Mason University near Washington, reviewed Deborah Shapley's extraordinary book, "Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara," for a newspaper that I published and edited for a dozen years, The Earth Times, I was summoned by one of McNamara best friends, the Canadian tycoon Maurice F. Strong.

Strong had been my friend, too, and he was a noted environmentalist who'd been a moral and intellectual supporter of my newspaper. He tore into me for running Tolchin's critical review in which she'd recalled McNamara's heavy-handed conduct during the Indochina years and his subsequent "conversion on the Road from Damascus - like St. Paul" during his tenure at the World Bank. "Bob is a good man," Maurice Strong told me, his voice quivering. "Your paper shouldn't be carrying such criticism of him." Implicit in what Strong said, of course, was that some sort of apology was due to McNamara.

Neither Susan Tolchin nor I ever issued such an apology. What for? Yes, Bob McNamara had served admirably well as the World Bank's president, and later as a board member of the Washington Post Company and the Washington-based liberal think tank, the Brookings Institution. Yes, he made contributions to philanthropies. And yes, he came out against George W. Bush's military adventure in Iraq.

But one's past isn't cleansed so readily. I know that a 93-year-old man has passed away peacefully in his sleep, and I know that it's traditional to view such a man's life through the prism of kindness.

I'm sorry, but I can't do that. Too many of my friends died in Indochina. Too many of them came home without limbs. Their lives never got to be celebrated in the manner in which Robert McNamara was feted in his later years. That's why, for me at least, he will always be Bomber Bob.


Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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