This week saw the passing of a much more influential figure in our nation’s history than Michael Jackson – although few cared or took notice. Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson and one of the principal architects of the Vietnam War, died at 93. As someone who had long since admitted the war was a disaster and a mistake, McNamara nonetheless was able to die an old man – a path denied the 60,000 or so American soldiers either killed or missing in action (not to mention the 3 million or so Vietnamese estimated to have died in relation to the conflict).
McNamara also had a role in the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II, and his passing underscores the career of a man who personified a generation embroiled in war – whether they liked it or not. And it helps raise the question of whether those 20th century large-scale wars are part of the past – obsolete, even.
It’s an interesting question, one the Dalai Lama, among others, have raise in recent years. The thinking is that with a global economy and interdependence between so many nations, the seemingly natural tendency to attack one another will be outmoded and seen as impractical – if not downright stupid.
But obsolete? Sea changes, like the invention of the automobile, caused other modes of transportation to be obsolete. But will the inclination of men (and I do mean men) to fight one another decline due to the logic of global interdependence?
Not so long as folks like Kim Jong-Il and Osama bin Laden walk the earth. Hitler and Stalin did their damage within memory of a recent generation, and life with an AK-47 in hand at all times is a reality for plenty of young men in this world – as is the constant fear among some that death via war activity may arrive at any moment. And it doesn’t matter much whether the weapon is a U.S. drone that missed its target in Afghanistan or a rusty blade wielded by a Janjaweed in Darfur. Dead is dead, and war doesn’t often follow the rules.
Even so, what’s not to like about the idea of war going bye-bye some day? You’d be hard-pressed to find someone outside companies like Lockheed-Martin or Northrop who doesn’t profess that to be a good idea. But is that what we practice in real life? The U.S. military budget is somewhere in excess of a half-trillion dollars annually, and we furiously manufacture weapons of war and support a large military while our infrastructure crumbles, our social safety nets fail and our status as a world technology leader erodes.
With the Fourth of July fresh in memory and Memorial Day not far behind, it’s also worth considering the way we look at the memories of war and the status of military service. We will and should continue to honor those who have served or fallen in our nation’s military. But we should work harder in the coming years to reduce the number of people and dollars we feed into the machinery of war. We should also spend more time and money developing the people, processes and infrastructure more dedicated to the causes of peace and prosperity: teachers, schools, scientists, researchers, universities, new energy technologies, etc. Sure, war makes money, but is that really where our future lies?
Mounting a defense against a legitimate threat is any sovereign nation’s right, and it’s true that countries don’t always get to choose the wars they end up fighting. But a superpower such as the United States almost always does. By embracing the notion that war is – or at least should be – obsolete as opposed to assuming it’s inevitable, we can go a long way toward reshaping our national identity and priorities. In other words, if we can choose peace and its many dividends, why wouldn’t we?
Robert McNamara may be gone, but his actions at the center of U.S. foreign policy during Vietnam – and later torment over his role – contain valuable lessons for the future and help frame the question: How can we be more serious and deliberate about avoiding big, stupid wars in the future?