Among the finest books ever written on the Vietnam War, Paul Hendrickson's The Living and the Dead should be required reading not only for all future Secretaries of Defense, but for anyone holding a position of sacred trust. Hendrickson has been a Washington Post reporter for many years, but to call this book journalism is like calling Mark McGuire a batter. This is work worthy of an Agee or a Mailer-- full of the fire and intimate shadings that only a novelist's eye and ear can supply.
A brief look at Hendrickson's two prior books helps bring this one into sharper focus. The first, Seminary: a Search, is an account of his seven years in a Catholic seminary and its enduring influence on him and his classmates, few of whom were ordained. Hendrickson left his calling-- and perhaps he resembles Melville, whom Hawthorne once characterized as neither believing nor being comfortable in his disbelief. Hendrickson's second book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marian Post-Walcott, is also about someone who left a "calling" only to regret it later. Marian was a gifted photographer for the Farm Services Administration, part of FDR's New Deal. Yet, after only two years of intense work (often under very difficult circumstances), she quit, married, and raised a family. Hendrickson pursues the implication of that decision-- one made all the more poignant by the fact that late in life her work enjoyed a something of a renaissance among art critics.
So the motiff of a calling and its abandonment informs both earlier books, and this is also true in less obvious ways of The Living and the Dead. This book brims with unforgettable "characters" who happen to be real people: a nurse, a Marine, a Quaker, a Vietnamese family, and finally the figure around whom all the other stories revolve: Robert Strange McNamara-- the brilliant, deceitful, self-divided mastermind of the war whose own life is explored here in great psychological and historical depth and seen finally as a kind of tragic American allegory.
Hendrickson makes us care deeply about all these people. More impressively, he convinces us that the war may have been in large part avoidable if only the Secretary of Defense had remained true to his calling. Precisely what that calling was-- or should have been-- is what the book aches to discover. McNamara should have been a moral exemplar, a great public servant whose immense intellectual gifts and god-like energy put him in a unique position to alter history for the better. Why he failed to do so is illuminated beautifully by the stories of the ordinary people who acted within their callings far more honorably and courageously than the man who shot to the top of corporate America like a meteor and then tried to "corporatize" the war in Indochina, only to leave the Pentagon in near-disgrace.
Hendrickson sees McNamara's failure as his suppression of his Jungian "anima," or female, compassionate self (which was clearly present in the private man) in favor of his "animus," the male self which dominated the public official-- cold, numerical, abstract. What was once said of poet John Crow Ransom may be true of Hendrickson as well: "he had a fury against abstraction" -- or at least a fury against those who hide behind abstractions to evade the consequences of their own actions (which in McNamara's case included many pointless deaths, countless lives deformed, and a nation driven into a paralyzing cynicism).
This book does not demonize McNamara, however. Rather, it shows him as fallible, inadequate to the task before him, and suffering from his own awareness of this fact. The book's most haunting intimation may be that McNamara did not so much fail in his calling, but worse: he did not have one. He lacked any sense of the need for sacred vision even within his decidedly secular empire. As an ex-seminarian so devoted to the idea of what a calling ought to mean that he would leave his own rather than demean it with half-hearted participation, Paul Hendrickson was maybe the perfect man to discover Robert McNamara's fatal flaw-- one that surely to some degree afflicts American culture at large.