Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 9 February 1997; on the web by permission, August 2003

This paperback edition of McNamara's lament for the Vietnam War includes, as an appendix, a hundred pages of impassioned reviews of the hardcover edition. Their viewpoints vary. Collectively, these commentaries add to McNamara's own explanation for this fiasco of U.S. foreign policy, and make an interesting book still more so.

The reviews are so preoccupied with war politics, however, that they overlook McNamara's role in economic change both within the United States and around the world. McNamara served as Secretary of Defense for seven years, from 1961 to 1968. During the 16 years preceeding, he worked his way from junior executive to president of the Ford Motor Co. During the 13 years afterwards, he was president of the World Bank. The greatest value of his book is the light it sheds on the logic or mode of thought underlying not just the war in Vietnam but the global capitalist economy that McNamara, as much as anyone, has shaped.

Thompson's collection of eleven essays forms a splendid background for seeing McNamara's mentality in sharp relief. The contrast extends to the publisher (McNamara's being somewhat more prominent) and even to the cover: McNamara's is as pallid as his prose, while Thompson's shows a northern landscape in glorious colour.

Like McNamara's, Thompson's book is autobiographical. From it we learn that during roughly the same years that McNamara was U. S. Defense Secretary, Thompson was a teacher and administrator at an Anglican seminary in Calcutta. Before that he was pursuing his own seminary and postgraduate studies, also serving as a summer soldier in the Canadian army. For 23 years after returning to Canada in 1970, Thompson taught religious studies at the University of Waterloo. In 1994, he and his partner "abandoned the increasingly babylonian complexity of life in southwestern Ontario to renew our contact with the living earth in the still verdant North."

Thompson's love songs range from a sensuous chronicle of the seasons at his home on Georgian Bay to critical, historically informed meditations on Canadian institutions (the university, the military, and the church) and on the aboriginal peoples and urban poor of India. One ode is to music, another is an unrepentant heterosexual's celebration of womanhood. In all these essays, the monotheistic and transcendent emphases of Christianity are tempered by the pantheism and immanence of eastern traditions. One gets a sense that Thompson has given life an unrestrained embrace, and takes enormous pleasure in the mystery of our planet and species.

McNamara holds life at arm's length. For him, the interval between birth and death is more problem than mystery. From the first chapters of his book, he all but admits that he has never felt worthy or powerful enough to relish life, to plunge into it of his own accord. His vocation, handed to him by the Harvard Business School, was to give loyal and skillful service to people worthier, more powerful than he: first Henry Ford II, then John Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson.

In Retrospect exposes with almost embarrassing candor the mentality of a technocrat. "Put very simply," McNamara writes, his approach from the start "was to define a clear objective for whatever organization I was associated with, develop a plan to achieve that objective, and systematically monitor progress against the plan." McNamara revels in "quantification as a language to add precision to reasoning about the world." He is proud to inform readers that he has a high IQ.

Such is the mode of thought (in depressing contrast to Thompson's depth, breadth, texture and complexity) that has brought us not just the Vietnam War, but the rationalization of commodity production in mega-firms like Ford Motor, and the incorporation of relatively autonomous, self-sustaining economies around the world into transnational capitalism.

Both McNamara and Thompson are senior citizens by now, formally retired even if still active as writers and political activists. They both deserve thanks for having exposed to public view their respective modes of thought. As between the two of them, Thompson seems to me to have ended up better off. His wealth is what he has learned to appreciate of life. McNamara's poverty is in still being stuck in the blinkered technocratic mentality from which he waged the war he now regrets.