Robert McNamara was a chief architect of the war in Vietnam, and one of the first to recognize that war's folly. As Secretary of Defense, first under Kennedy and then Johnson, he concluded early on (perhaps as early as 1965) that America's crusade in Vietnam was a hopeless morass, conceived in arrogance and doomed to inflict nothing but tragedy on the nation it was designed to save.
In private, he spoke out against the war -- at times erupting in strange and unsettling outbursts of rage at the misbegotten crusade. But in public he hemmed and hawed and dissembled, offering carefully misleading answers to the press and to politicians alike, designed to shore up support for a war he'd long ago been convinced was a horrific mistake. It wasn't until 1968 that he finally left his post, and even then he refused to speak out on the war. When he had a chance to be a hero, he hesitated -- and in a sense he has been lost ever since.
Paul Hendrickson's brilliant "The Living and the Dead" sketches out the uncontrolled life of a man obsessed with control, a man more comfortable talking percentages than talking about human lives. Hendrickson, a reporter at the Washington Post, carefully intertwines his account of McNamara's career with the lives of five others caught in the wake of the war -- an artist who attempted to drown the former warmaker in the waters off Martha's Vineyard; a Quaker who set himself on fire outside McNamara's office at the Pentagon; a marine still attempting to come to terms with the psychic injuries of McNamara's war; an Army nurse who returned from Vietnam to a life of bizarre medical torments; a Saigon man who still rues the day the arrogant Americans arrived on the scene.
But "The Living and the Dead" is more than a group biography. It's a reflection on the morality of collaboration, a brilliantly and bitingly critical account of McNamara's own attempts to "apologize" for his role in the continuation of the war in his justly excoriated memoir "In Retrospect." "The Living and the Dead" is an at times angry, but always thoughtful, account of our country's (and Hendrickson's own) attempts to come to terms with Vietnam, which Hendrickson declares America's "great myth... supersed[ing] every other twentieth-century fable we have... a puzzle without pieces, a riddle without rhyme."