Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Robert Strange McNamara Didn't Live on the Moon

Entertainment as news filled time slots on television and newspaper columns for a full week. It was wall to wall coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. The media was lost in Neverland.

Every scintilla of information about the man was chewed into gruel and spit out, again and again. Speaking ill or making light of the dead “King of Pop,” or challenging the deep feelings held by his family, friends and true fans upon his passing would be cold and meager in spirit. He was loved. Many will never forget him.

But the cascading frenzy surrounding the meanings and the tributes flowing endlessly through the oiled channels of the media should give pause. As one TV news reporter in a slip of candor put it: “. . . we see the power of pop culture that a broadcaster ignores at its own peril. Death, for a moment, wipes a slate clean.” And Americans have always been partial to fresh starts, clean slates. Memory and history are for family reunions and holidays.

But it’s worth noting that in the shadow of Michael Jackson’s death, many others moved to their final rest. Perhaps none as significant for our times as Robert McNamara. If you are a freshly minted Michael Jackson fan, born in the past quarter century and just about have your version of Jackson’s Moonwalk ready for prime time YouTube fame, you may never have heard of McNamara. And many who will never try to Moonwalk, who are more at home with The Twist, a dance craze of their youth in the late fifties, will recognize the name and that’s about it.

But for some, Robert McNamara will always be a name etched as deeply in their memories as are the 58,000 and more names burned into the polished black granite of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C..

Robert Strange McNamara was good with figures, with understanding complex systems, with rolling out charts for presidents and telling them with great assurance what would and would not, could and could not, happen if they ordered this or this. The “this or this” concerned military operations–nuclear weapons, bombing patterns, covert invasions, and always, yes always, casualties, body counts.

McNamara was the Secretary of Defense for seven years, serving both Kennedy and Johnson. He was sometimes called the “whiz kid” because as a young man in the late fifties he was successful in turning Ford Motor around. He also got his name stuck on a disastrous war; the Vietnam War became known by many as “McNamara’s War.”

After a week of adulation of a pop entertainer, even one carrying the baggage Michael Jackson picked up over the years, it’s breathtaking to read what one newspaper had to say in an editorial in 1995. McNamara had just published a book admitting that on the Vietnam War he had been “wrong, terribly wrong.” Here’s part of how the “New York Times” responded editorially: “Surely he [McNamara] must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys . . . dying in the tall grass . . . for no purpose.” His future should be the “lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen.”

Yes, this is harsh. (And there were even harsher commentaries from other quarters.) But is there not something just in saying to a man who as much as any other led this nation into a war that ended so many lives abroad and broke so many at home, you are not forgiven your blind arrogance?

Many today look forward to a day when the same tight-jawed wrath will rain down on Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice and others responsible for leading us into the bare mountains of Afghanistan and the blood soaked dust of Iraq. But many more are just not paying attention. If pressed, some may say they’re not interested in “settling scores,” playing the “blame game.” But most are just interested in being uninterested, in doing The Twist, or practicing the Moonwalk.

“We get the leaders we deserve,” is a standard piece of political chatter these days. Few look behind this bland, diversionary truism to ask: “What kind of people are we to create and deserve such leaders?” Maybe we know the answer to this question and knowing the answer are quick to wipe the slate clean.

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