Robert S. McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, died yesterday at age 93 — see today’s article in The Washington Post.

As a teenager during the Vietnam war, my view of McNamara was two-dimensional, you might say. For the black-and-white morality of a young war resister, he was the enemy.

Years passed, and I didn’t think about Robert McNamara much until 2004, when the documentary The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara came out.

Watching the movie, I was fascinated at the nuanced picture it presented of this once-controversial and divisive figure. The film includes comments from a long interview with McNamara. It would be over-simplifying to say that he admits he and other policy-makers were wrong in the way they prosecuted the Vietnam conflict. He really gives the viewer a sense of how hard it is for decision-makers to be certain they are doing the right thing.

Watching and listening to McNamara in his late-80s, I also remember feeling some shame at my previous attitude toward this somewhat stooped old fellow in his tan raincoat.

Can’t remember where I read it, but it was good advice: If you find yourself hating someone, try imagining them as a helpless little baby or as a very old person near the end of their life.

AB — 6 July 2009

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