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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

aging (dis)gracefully

Speaking for myself, these are uncertain times. As one gets older, it seems reasonable to suppose that one should get wiser, more mature, and generally acquire a better outlook on life.

But this isn't necessarily so. I think about the saying that some people "forget nothing and learn nothing". But I worry that there could be another saying, that some people "study everything and learn nothing". Or simply that in one's older age, the chickens of one's youthful folly and hubris come home to roost.

Yesterday I continued to make my way through James Carroll's House of War, his history of the Pentagon. The book is not exactly what I expected it to be, but I am enjoying it very much--maybe more than if it had been what I expected. I was expecting a kind of institutional history of the Pentagon. Instead, the book is a thoughtful examination of the ideas and policies of the U.S. military since the Pentagon was created in World War II, particularly as these ideas were held and pursued by various significant individuals. Distressed by the current and growing militarism of his country, Carroll is asking, "what went wrong?"

One of the most significant players in this history was Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. McNamara, a young statistician attached to the Air Force in World War II, went on to become CEO of Ford, and made a name as a brilliant and highly capable and successful executive. From there he was recruited to join Kennedy's cabinet in 1961.

The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, had been built to its full Army-specified size in 1941, in direct defiance of President Roosevelt's order that it be cut to half its planned size. From the word go it was a cockpit of interservice rivalry. With the advent of nuclear weapons, its budget ballooned in the fear and paranoia of the Cold War.

Kennedy was elected after engaging in the most powerful scaremongering ever used by any presidential candidate. People were terrified of the "missile gap" (which did exist--but hugely in the United States' favor), and the citizens were urged to build bomb shelters for what was increasingly looking like an inevitable and imminent nuclear war. The terror came to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and twitchy fingers hovered on the hair-trigger of nuclear attack.

Kennedy was able to defuse that crisis, but he had a change of heart about talking tough to the Soviets. He came to see it as his mission to lead the world away from nuclear Armageddon. (Looking at it now, I suspect this was the real reason he was whacked in 1963.)

Robert McNamara, for his part, saw it as his mission to bring the Pentagon under civilian control--his control--and to move the "nuclear trigger" out of the hands of paranoid hawks such as Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command, who believed ardently in the preemptive and massive first-strike use of atomic weapons. In Vietnam, McNamara sought to rationalize the use of bombing as a tool, not to destroy everything and everyone in sight, as was done eventually in World War II, but to push the Viet Cong toward a political, negotiated solution.

This idea proved to be a complete failure. Even by 1967 more ordnance had been dropped on Vietnam than on Europe in all of World War II, and the Viet Cong showed no sign whatever of giving up. Meanwhile, McNamara was becoming a nervous wreck. He was weeping at his desk in the Pentagon. Lyndon Johnson was afraid that McNamara was going the way of the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who, in 1949, had degenerated into acute paranoia and wound up committing suicide while under psychiatric care. When McNamara, at a key meeting, yelled and pleaded that the bombing in Vietnam had been a total waste and had to stop, Johnson had him removed from his post. McNamara was 100% right, of course--but the bombing went on.

Robert McNamara is 91 now. It seems that the Vietnam War proved to be a humbling and shattering experience for him: a time when his intelligence and self-confidence met their Waterloo. Or, switching to a metaphor used by James Carroll, he was Ahab meeting his Moby-Dick in the Pentagon, the great beast that he sought to subdue but which dragged him under. The brilliance of his youthful achievements led on to pain and no doubt remorse in his older years.

So age is not any kind of safe haven. Not unless, perhaps, you've lived prudently and wisely in your youth. And how many of us have done that?

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