Robert McNamara, Cuban Missiles & the Absurd

by on August 3rd, 2004

Watching Errol Morris’ “Fog of War,” a documentary about Robert McNamara, was exceptionally informative. There are literally hundreds of topics to discuss that pertain to this film, but for now, I want to focus on these two:

#1 – How can McNamara talk through the bombing of 50-90% of the Japanese civilian population of 68 cities emotionless and calculating then break down and cry when describing the final resting place he chose for President Kennedy? The cognitive dissonance baffles the mind.

According to McNamara, he is a rational man, and, by any objective measure, he is also an exceptionally intelligent man – almost superhuman in his capacity for analysis & application of data. Yet, his rationality has allowed him to break free of his own morality and justify his actions in both WWII & Vietnam.

To me, these events and McNamara’s ability to survive, faculties intact, create the ultimate rationale for the rise of the absurdist literature of Camus & Sartre. Here is a man who has recommended the deaths of hundreds of thousands, willingly admitting to the fact that if the war had been lost, he would be tried as a war criminal. Yet, he can barely hold back the tears for a dear friend and respected president. It is not that he feels no emotion and no sadness, but rather that he has removed his mind and his morality from his past actions.

To quote Keatis, “Insanity it seems, has got him by the soul to squeeze.”

#2 – This quote comes from David Talbot of Salon’s interview with the film’s director Errol Morris:

“[I]n the middle of that crisis (the Cuban Missile Crisis), Bobby Kennedy told the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, that Moscow had to understand that if there is not some kind of resolution quickly to this, there is a risk of a coup in the U.S. The military will topple JFK.”

In doing some research, I discovered that this was not an idle threat of Bobby’s. He truly believed it and McNamara alludes to this in the documentary.

Just think for a moment about Halloween of 1962 becoming the day America was taken over by a coup of military leaders – the Joint Chiefs – and the beginning of a massive nuclear war with China & the USSR. The most ludicrous part is that the CIA told Kennedy that Cuba had no nuclear warheads. We later found out that between 60 and 90 million Americans would have been killed by warheads on Cuba that the CIA never knew about. The end of modern civilization was avoided by a little empathy & a lot of luck.

Despite the lessons of history and the film, we have learned nothing. To this day, 25,000 nuclear missiles are ready to launch at worldwide targets within 15 minutes. These weapons have the potential to reduce the world’s population to 1/2 of its current level… all at the disgression of one man. You might remember him as the former cokehead and alcoholic of Kennebunkport, Maine.

Rand Fishkin