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.
As a Viet Nam vet against the war (before, during and after), I applaud the book. However, I think Mr. Hendrickson is really pretty soft on the SOB. He is too smoothly civilized in carefully, cautiously, respectfully, slowly working up to calling the old man a liar, which in my mind has not been a question for well over thirty years.
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.
Not A Real Name
If you're familiar with Robert McNamara, you probably know that many people have some very strong feelings about the man. This includes many of the other authors who have written about the former secretary of defense. Hendrickson has managed to restore an aspect of humanity to the former secretary, and do so without making apologies for him. This is not an easy trick If you're familiar with the usual indictments against McNamara (He's a liar, he knew the war was unwinable but kept it going for years, he's an evil robot of a man that enjoys dropping bombs on villages, etc...) this book should be of help to you in making sense of a complicated man, and might even help you to understand him to some degree.
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.
I read the hardback version of this book several years ago when it first came out. I've probably read about 20 books on the Vietnam war, including the Pentagon Papers. I'm well steeped in the literature - and this is one of the best books on the war. I only read it once a few years ago and some of the passages and scenes in the book are still in my mind. Who can forget the Veteran who saw McNamara on the boat near Martha's Vineyard? Or McNamara's breakdown at his go away dinner. Or his realization that the war was unwinnable after the first major engaement of combat troops?
This book falls squarely into the category of a wonderfully developed "best of class", for it faces the issue of Robert McNamara complicity and lasting culpability for the debacle and aftermath associated with Vietnam. Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, it is only fair to mention my own antipathy for McNamara, and my own belief he (as well as Henry Kissinger and a number of notable others) should have been indicted for crimes against humanity in association with the war in Vietnam. Nonetheless, this book is truly amazing at a number of levels, but most certainly because it puts the lie to the lingering neo-conservative notion that Vietnam was a necessary and winnable war that the nattering nabobs of negativity (read liberals here) and anti-war protestors inadvertently lost for America. Of course, such nonsense has more to do with wishful thinking then it does the reality of the times, as author Paul Hendrickson quickly illustrates.
This is a fascinating character study, one that poses McNamara as an isolated, antisocial figure more at home with the comfortable fictions of number crunching than with the quicksilver facts of everyday reality. His rise from Harvard to the Air Force to Ford won him wide acclaim as a "no-nonsense can-do" kind of guy, and this reputation for being the best and the brightest resulted in him being named Secretary of Defense by Jack Kennedy in what was likely the most disastrous public appointments of the last half of the 20th century. He force-fit his own conceptual perceptions onto the way the Department of Defense assessed itself and its engagements, so that quantitative measures came to supplant local experience and field judgment in the conduct of day-to-day operations in Vietnam. Thus, the most venial sorts of bean-counting by way of number of sorties, bomb tonnage dropped, and enemy body counts became the "meaningful measures of merit" (an actual term, not one I am concocting) the "whiz-kids" at the Pentagon used to determine where they stood in terms of the ultimate victory.
Meanwhile, thousands of American boys, as well as countless Vietnamese of every age, sex and description were lost in so-called "collateral damage". Engaged in the circular reasoning only a true believer in quantitative reasoning could marshal, McNamara fought to maintain the perception the war was being won, even when his raging intellect knew otherwise. Yet even after he recognized the reality of the situation, this self-described man of conscience could not bring himself to do the right and honorable thing. Rather than tell the truth and expose the outrageous situation in Vietnam, he remained silent, allowing many more thousand of young Americans and Vietnamese to die. It is this failure of conscience for which he should have been prosecuted, for his willing complicity in the continuing bloodbath long after he knew the war could not be won and that our efforts there would result only in further loss of life.
The book is also singular in its counter position of McNamara's evolution throughout the sixties and early seventies with five others so dramatically linked with the progress of the war in Vietnam; four Americans and a young Vietnamese citizen, all of whom were fatefully affected by McNamara's moral cowardice and abject failure to act or speak out. Most poignant for me was the story of one former Vietnam veteran turned artist who actually went berserk on a ferry when he discovered McNamara to be a fellow passenger. Finally, the author deals quite convincingly with the self-serving arguments McNamara himself has used to deflect criticism from himself, showing how one-sided and inconsistent they are with the public record. This is a terrific book, and one that provocatively revisits the painful and mind-numbing consequences that the terrible events of the sixties had for so many ordinary Americans. I recommend this book, although I must caution that reading it is hardly for the squeamish or faint of heart. It cuts deep into the heart of darkness that was so central to our venture in Vietnam, and faithfully recalls the depths of heartache and tragedy that piteous, misadventured action caused.