And We Kill People Unnecessarily

Politics is like a cold, harsh room. It reminds me of a hospital, a place where lives are saved and lives are extinguished, all with a sleight of hand.

The flowers there are plastic; prayers and sobs feature more regularly than laughter. And there’s always a metallic smell – of blood or mistakes, or perhaps just the odor of ‘This wasn’t supposed to happen’. But that’s what you get in a room full of humans trying to play God. Loss. Guilt.

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Regret. Politics. Every human has to deal with some kind of war in their lifetime. Maybe it’s inside them, maybe it’s not. But Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense, found himself in the most explosive, potentially apocalyptic ones – Vietnam, the Cuban Missile crisis, the Cold War, nuclear warfare.

A military board game come to life, with the limits smashed and the stakes as high as God. I don’t know nearly enough about McNamara to tell you whether he was right in his actions. Or even good. But I don’t think it’s completely possible to be any of those things, when your life is a sailboat on the riptide of war. Many of McNamara’s operations as Secretary of Defense were riddled with bullet holes and bomb craters.

The catastrophes of the Vietnam War are widely documented; the statistical breakdown of America’s bombing of Japan in World War II leaves one reeling. McNamara played a key role in perpetrating these events. Yet he was an insightful, intensely intelligent man. This is easy to see as he converses with the camera in Errol Morris’s documentary ‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

‘ You get the feeling that his eyes, heaving with history, from cheery Armistice scenes to the world teetering on total destruction, these eyes are like two pinholes of light in the ‘fog’. He asks: ‘What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?’ The screen hums with his silence, and with yours. At one point, the threads in McNamara’s voice start pulling themselves apart. His eyes become red and wet. “I got a call saying the president was just shot’.He stares at the camera and I think, how many dead teenage boys, lying in swampy rivers, how many anonymous people, burnt in their blackened homes, how many friends, lost and exhausted, swim around in that gaze of his? Has the guilt in him ever threatened to tip over? Time has stripped away McNamara’s actions and flaws, his slicked-back-hair youth and his aloof acumen.

He will now exist in history books, fodder for future exam papers. But before these print away his humanity, and alienate him to the distant past, a handful of us will remember him as something more than a mere politician. For few men in power gather their mistakes in their hands and show them to the world, palms up. Yes, maybe it is ‘three decades late’ from McNamara. But it is there – in his memoirs, in his eyes, in the spaces between his dialogue, silent and full.

“We kill people unnecessarily” he says. I wonder, when was the last time I heard any politician say that…realize that? When? McNamara’s lived and died and given us his lessons. Yet humans continue to be collateral damage, playing cards in the hands of ‘big men’. We are still a world that feeds on the casual kill.