#51 – Dick Bernard: Death: Michael (Jackson), Robert (McNamara), Sarah (Palin)

Yesterday while I was donating blood, I asked the nurse if she had watched any of the Michael Jackson memorial or other goings on surrounding his death.  Mostly, she was non-commital, but her response was pretty succinct and wise.  There are two things certain in our lives, she said: we are born, and we die.  This led to a little sidetrip for the two of us into another reality: unless someone really truly plans their death, none of us know when or how our end will come.  All we know for sure is that there is a temporal end.  We agreed that is good that we don’t know the details about our dying….
Of course, nobody knows what’s on the other side of life.  There is endless speculation, and opposing absolute certainties, expressed about that too.
About all that matters, some of which is within our control, happens between the beginning and the end.  In this middle is where we make our mark, whether for good or ill or not at all (by taking a pass from working for change we feel is important.) 
Michael Jackson (51) and Robert McNamara (93) walked into the unknown in recent days.  Sarah Palin walked into another kind of potential – and horrible (for her) – death.  Political death.  All of them are celebrities; all of them are more a window into who we are as a people, than personalities unto themselves.
Of the three, certainly Michael Jackson got the most attention.  Probably Sarah Palin came in second; Robert S. McNamara third.  Full disclosure: I never followed Michael Jackson, and saw only snips of the service yesterday; I have gained a certain amount of respect for McNamara, solely because he seems to be the rare individual, especially a powerful one, who’s willing to expose the possibility that some of his decisions were flat out wrong.  Palin?  I think that when the dust settles – I give it a year – she’ll have made a few million, and be yesterday’s news. 
There are millions of other deaths too, of course; some make the papers, most don’t.  But these three dominated recent news.  I don’t pretend to have anything other than my own opinion, and I’ll take them in order, very briefly.
Michael Jackson was immensely talented and ultimately a victim of our societies slavish devotion to celebrity.  He reached the pinnacle, and what did it get him in the end?  Our celebrities become our targets.  He’s dead now, and his riches (or his debt) is of no personal concern to him.  People will make a mint off of his memory and fight over the remnants of his economic carcass, like so many vultures.  What was good or bad about him will be flogged mercilessly for as long as it will attract attention. 
Robert S. McNamara was brilliant and loyal and what did it get him in the end?  He took a huge cut in pay to leave a high-paying corporate job with Ford Motor Company to become Secretary of Defense in early President John F Kennedy times.  In a temporal and governmental sense he was powerful, and trusted.  He thought he knew what he was doing; his certainty(and that of others) ended in disaster.  He rose and fell during my early adult life.  I will mostly remember his documentary, “The Fog of War”, as well as a commentary of his, published in August, 2003, entitled “We must minimize cruelties of war” (reprinted at the end of this post.)  At the end, his certainty was replaced by his doubt.  He will be judged on his certainty.  “As I speak”, there’s teams of people attempting to rewrite the history of Vietnam, so that it seems like a necessity and even a success.  I wonder what McNamara would say. 
Sarah Palin ?  In a physical sense, she is very much alive.  But I can’t escape the thought that when she resigned from the Alaska Governorship this past weekend, she effectively committed political suicide, one of the more horrible deaths: yesterday’s darling, tomorrow’s irrelevancy.  Oh, initially she’ll make a ton of money inspiring her base, but even they will tire of her, sooner than later.  And she won’t have the Michael Jackson legacy to bank on.
So it goes…life and death, in all their many forms.
There is something to be said for lacking fame, and not being well known.  Best that we do what we can in our relative anonymity.  In the end, what little we seem to do can make as much or more difference, than that of the celebrities and those seemingly more “powerful”.  It just doesn’t seem so.
Robert S. McNamara: “We must minimize cruelties of war” as printed in the St. Petersburg FL Times, August 8, 2003.  Many thanks to Eugenie Fellows, who sent me this article years ago.
On the night of March 9, 1945, when the lead crews of the 21st Bomber Command returned from the first firebombing mission over Tokyo, Gen. Curtis LeMay was waiting for them in his headquarters on Guam.  I was in Guam on temporary duty from Air Force headquarters in Washington, and LeMay had asked me to join him for the after mission reports that evening.
LeMay was just as tough as his reputation.  In many ways, he appeared to be brutal, but he was also the ablest commander of any I met during my three years of service with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II.
That night, he’d sent out 334 B-29 bombers, seeking to inflict, as he put it, the maximum target destruction for the minimum loss of American lives.  World War II was entering its final months, and the United States was beginning the last, devastating push for an unconditional Japanese surrender.
On that one night alone, LeMay’s bombers burned to death 83,793 Japanese civilians and injured 40,918 more.  The planes dropped firebombs and flew lower than they had in the past and therefore were more accurate and more destructive.
That night’s raid was only the first of 67.  Night after night – 66 more times – crews were sent out over the skies of Japan.  Of course we didn’t burn to death 83,000 people every night, but over a period of months American bombs inflicted extraordinary damage on a host of Japanese cities – 900,000 killed, 1.3 million injured, more than half the populaiton displaced.
The country was devastated.  The degree of killing was extraordinary.  Radio Tokyo compared the raids to the burning of Rome in the year 64.
LeMay was convinced that it was the right thing to do, and he told his superiors (from whom he had not asked for authority to conduct the March 9 raid), “If you want me to burn the rest of Japan, I can do that.”
LeMay’s position on war was clear: If you’re going to fight, you should fight to win.
In the years afterward, he was quoted as saying, “If you’re going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force.”  He also said: “All war is immoral, and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”
Looking back almost 60 years later – and after serving as secretary of Defense for seven years during one of the hottest periods of the Cold War, including the Cuban missile crisis – I have to say that I disagree.
War may or may not be immoral, but it should be fought within a clearly defined set of rules.
One other thing LeMay said, and I heard him say it myself: “If we lose the war, we’ll be tried as war criminals.”  We would have been.  But what makes one’s conduct immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
The “just war” theory first expounded by the great Catholic thinkers (I am a Protestant), argues that the application of military power should be proportional to the cause to which you’re applying it.  A prosecutor would have argued that burning to death 83,000 civilians in a single night and following up with 66 additional raids was not proportional to our war aims.
War will not be eliminated in the foreseeable future, if ever.  But we can – and we must – eliminate some of the violence and cruelty and excess that go along with it.
That is why the United States so badly needs to participate in the International Court for Crimes Against Humanity, which was recently established in The Hague.  President Clinton signed that treaty on New Year’s Eve 2000, just before leaving office, but in May, 2002, President Bush announced that the United States did not intend to become a party to the treaty.
The Bush administration believes, and many agree, that the court could become a vehicle for frivolous or unfair prosecutions of American military personnel.  Although that is a cause for concern, I believe we should join the court immediately while we continue to negotiate further protection against such cases.
If LeMay were alive, he would tell me I was out of my mind.  He’d say the proportionality rule is ridiculous.  He’d say that if you don’t kill enough of the enemy, it just means more of your own troops will die.
But I believe that the human race desperately needs an agreed-upon system of jurisprudence that tells us what conduct by political and military leaders is right and what is wrong, both in conflict within nations and in conflict across national borders.
Is it legal to incinerate 83,000 people in a single night to achieve your war aims?  Was Hiroshima legal?  Was the use of Agent Orange – which occurred while I was secretary of Defense – a violation of international law?
These questions are critical.  Our country needs to be involved, along with the International Court for Crimes Against Humanity, in the search for answers.

1 reply
  1. Claude Buettner
    Claude Buettner says:

    McNamara’s words are very timely as the Iraq and Afghanistani wars proceed to wherever they are going. We should keep an eye on the rules of engagement as the dichotomy of “overwheling force” for military action and “minimal force” for policing action is debated and decided.

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