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.
To hell with poor schizoid Mr. McNamara and his sad, touching, tragic inability to relate to other human beings- Vietnamese, Americans, his own family... It's a good thing I wasn't along on the ferry that night on Vineyard Sound, because back then I was more than ready to kick Mr. McNamara's teeth in, before ripping his fingers loose from the railing and pitching him into that cold, dark water.
The book hints at the levels of anger and frustration that McNamara personally inspired, over and over again. (The demonstrations, car bouncings, arson at his snazzy new house at Snowmass, etc.)
I think the Morrison connection is relied on too heavily- Hendrickson confirms that Morrison didn't have anything in particular against McNamara, and didn't even know where the SecDef's window was when he burned himself at the Pentagon...
The book does not give voice to the valid view that the super-technocrat was in fact a cold blooded, knowing and unapologetic mass murderer. If his conscience ever bothered him much, it didn't cause him to do anything other than whine a bit, of which the nauseating "In Retrospect" is only the latest example. Even if his wife and kids did get ulcers.
The definitive objective book on the man that, more than almost anyone else, got us neck deep into the idiocy of the Viet war, has yet to be written.
Along with his narrative of the trials and tribulations of Robert Strange McNamara, Hendrickson tells the tales of a handful of divergent figures involved in a variety of ways with the American War in Vietnam. If you're particularly interested in this war, you'll probably recognize the tale of a conscientious objector that gave the last full measure of devotion outside McNamara's Pentagon window. The other individuals are most likely strangers to pretty much anyone, but their stories serve to enliven the narrative, and are interesting in and of themselves.
Like the author, I'm not apologizing for McNamara. However, I think the man has been burned in effigy long enough, and if you still insist on hating him, you ought to at least try to understand the position he was in. 9 out of 10 McNamara haters do not. I'm not saying that McNamara did the right thing, or making any form of value judgement on the war, but I do believe that he takes an inordinate amount of the blame for the disaster in Indochina, and it's about time someone presented a reasonably fair picture of Mr. McNamara.
Hendrickson gives you both sides to the McNamara coin. He calls him on a number of apparent(and a few obvious) lies, yet he also plays devil's advocate rather well. His discussion of whether or not McNamara should have resigned when he lost faith is an excellent example of fairness in journalism. He doesn't judge him on this, but he presents the alternatives, as they must have appeared to McNamara in the mid 60s, and lets the reader decide. After you know where McNamara came from, and try to imagine what his experiences prior to becoming SecDef had taught him, you are free to throw stones. I have a strong feeling you might still be inclined to. However, I think you might be a bit less inclined to fault him for certain things, and a bit more knowledgeable about a certain war in Southeast Asia for having read this book.