Wednesday, June 15, 2005

MAC AND MCNAMARA...

The lull in my posting simply reflects the overdependence on technology that we have succumbed to. My old Mac has broken down. A brand new Powerbook G4 has been ordered. Until it gets here, it feels as if the air that I breathe itself has been sucked into oblivion...

Two movies that I watched last week shed light, or rather raise yet more questions, about the moral dilemmas of war. I will talk about one of them here, and save discussion of the other, 'The Fog of War', for the next post. Actually I have seen 'The Fog of War' many times and had bought the DVD many months back. But I wanted to talk about it in some detail. So...


Path to War (2002) paints a sober and telling picture of the Johnson administration's struggles with Vietnam. Michael Gambon makes a valiant attempt to portray Lyndon Johnson, and almost perfectly succeeds. While admirably displaying LBJ's overbearing demeanour (both physically imposing and intellectually aggressive), he also brings a sensitivity and sense of tormented concern to the role, traits that LBJ possesed to an unusual extent, which few people saw behind the gruff and domineering personality.

The movie focuses on the now well-known trials and tribulations that the administration faced in Vietnam. In retrospect, it looks as if the die had been cast, and the whole state of affairs had the inevitability of a Greek tragedy right from the beginning. Johnson wanted to effect a quick win and draw out; Ho Chi-Minh would have never let Johnson have it, even if it meant the total annihilation of Vietnam. Period. The central issue, that the Vietnamese were not Chinese or Russian Communist pawns, but were essentially fighting for their independence, seems to have been consistently and totally overlooked by the 'best and the brightest'; hand picked, ivy-league educated brilliant men in the administration, which included Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Former CEO of Ford, and the only non-member of the Ford family to hold that post), and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Some, like JFK's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, purportedly realised quite early that American entry into Vietnam was jinxed, but "persisted in their folly" (according to historian Kai Bird; his 'Colour of Truth' paints an excellent and objective portrait of the 'Bundy brothers', the other of whom was at the Pentagon) Probably the only person who seemed to understand the tenacious doggedness of the Vietnamese was George Ball, Undersecretary of State, whose opinions were repeatedly given a sympathetic ear and then ignored. That war was all about empathizing with the enemy, a fact that the naive idealism of the Americans completely managed to ignore at the time. (In restrospect, in his book, 'In Retrospect- The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam', McNamara analyzes the entire state of affairs in convincing and sane detail. Whatever happened to hindsight then?!)

In the movie, Donald Sutherland powerfully plays Clark Clifford, a personal friend and a special advisor to Johnson, and Alec Baldwin puts up a sincere performance as McNamara (although I thought he was a bit too rotund for the role).
Many memorable dialogues and comments abound in the movie. But I would definitely remember one situation in particular...

The President and his advisors have gathered at Camp David, the presidential retreat, to discuss future policy and action. On one side of Johnson is Clark, on the other is McNamara. Clark at first makes a commonsense argument about how any unilateral effort in Vietnam is going to be doomed. Then comes McNamara's turn. With the cold, precise, logical thinking that he was known for ('Mac the Knife'), he launches into an extended statistical analysis of sorties, deployments, and charts, virtually burying the men around him in numbers. After this protracted ultra-analytical spiel, he somehow seems to have managed to convince the President, on the basis of sheer numbers, that victory in Vietnam seems very plausible. After the long discussion, the advisors step outside for some fresh air. Clark walks over to McNamara, and tells him that it was very interesting to hear him speak today. Clark recounts a tale JFK had told him. During the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most that the world had ever been close to nuclear war, McNamara had provided invaluable advice on how to tackle the situation, and he played a major part in averting a significant disaster. Clark says, "As far as I can remember Bob, that time, you had not made a single statistical analysis, had not put forth any important numbers. You had only used your commonsense and straightforward thinking..."

Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, who died a few months ago, always believed that science is not going to save humanity. If anything, it will be commonsense, and mutual discussion with the other fellow. Coming from a man who was one of the high priests of science in the twentieth century, this statement may sound strange. But Bethe quite rightly understood, that rationality can only take us so far, and after that, what can possibly save us are only the simple, straightforward ties that link us to each other. Those advisors of the Vietnam war apparently seem to have failed to recognise this, maybe because it was too simple and obvious? The more important question is, has the world of today recognised it? I doubt it...

1 Comments:

Blogger Hirak said...

Thought that The Fog of War was a great movie and Mac the Knife did apologize for his actions and wanted to impart that wisdom to the current crop of leaders. But who's listening?

12:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home