Robert S. McNamara is an old man now. But he is frozen in many minds the way he looked as he helped choreograph the Vietnam War: The wire-rim glasses, the stern expression, the demeanor that said: “I am in charge. Don’t question me.”
At 78, though, McNamara is finally questioning himself. In a memoir to be published this week, McNamara admits that the United States should have withdrawn from Vietnam in 1963, when only 78 Americans had been killed. The former secretary of defense should have, he says now, forced a probing debate about whether the war could ever be won.
He didn’t. More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Nothing will bring them back. Not even an older man’s regret. He cried in a recent interview with television journalist Diane Sawyer; his grief is that poignant.
McNamara’s candid reassessment of his decisions are an act of courage. Not only because it will help the country continue to heal from Vietnam, but because he is setting an example of what all older people should do as they age. Take stock of their lives. Admit mistakes. Not because mistakes can be corrected, but because it sets the record straight and, perhaps, allows the younger generation to avoid similar missteps.
McNamara is doing now what it takes to leave his personal world in peace. He’s trying to fashion some sense out of his life story before he dies.
In a workshop held last fall in Spokane, Naomi Feil, a Cleveland author and speaker who has worked with the “old-old” for 30 years, said this: “The older person is looking back on life. They have to make sense of it. Tie the loose ends together. They have entered a resolution phase of life. They have stuffed inside them some of the important feelings they should have been expressing.”
If the feelings don’t get aired, if the personal history does not get looked at with a critical eye, then the older person suffers emotionally. As pioneer psychoanalyst Carl Jung once put it: “The cat ignored becomes the tiger.”
McNamara is admitting his “errors of judgment” now in the hope they won’t be repeated, though he says American difficulties in Bosnia and Somalia involved similar errors.
Few older people made errors of judgment that wrenched a nation apart, the way Vietnam decisions did. But all older people made mistakes in their younger years, mistakes that hurt their families, communities, workplaces.
By taking McNamara’s lead, and looking back with an honest eye and honest heart, older people can help themselves along in the aging process and leave an important example for their families.
And in the end, that’s the true stuff of heroism.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Rebecca Nappi/For the editorial board