Among others, the memorable elements of a weekend retreat to northwestern Wisconsin can include rain-drenched woods, the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C# minor, the second act of American Ballet Theatre’s 1977 “Giselle,” four weeks worth of The New York Times Book Review, and an aging Scottish terrier’s inability to sustain long walks in high humidity.
We have visited this extended family hideaway since 1989, each visit reflecting both stability and change. Trees inch upward imperceptibly, their changes in height observable by comparing annual photographs. Declining lake water levels become noticeable only after a few seasons. New construction on neighboring parcels occurs quickly and one later recalls that the new always was there.
The summer season – Memorial Day through Labor Day – has its rhythms of grilling, boating, and fishing, with late July being a quiet interlude with few visitors. Fall brings a relatively early frost and finds a few deer hunters combing the woods. Winter hosts activities by skiers and snowmobilers, organized loosely around the pro football schedule. Spring means transition, a time for preparation.
For years, one particular place across the lake was busy throughout the summer, with constant arrivals and departures by car and boat, and with swimmers daily visiting their anchored raft. Last year, however, the pace of activity over there slackened. This year, the raft remains landlocked and the winter covering continues to protect the pontoon boat. Incrementally, the kids have grown up and life patterns have changed for the extended L---- family. In a few years, perhaps, one might observe a group of college students taking their departure following a New Year’s Eve blowout, similar to that of a few years ago at the cabin next door to us.
Forever is a long time.
Those words have tugged at me for the nearly three weeks since Robert S. McNamara died at age 93. His passing serves to remind that we write our epitaphs incrementally by what we do and by what we leave undone. McNamara’s summing up is a tortured one:
“Architect of a Futile War,” read the headline for his obituary by Tim Weiner in the New York Times.
“’Terribly Wrong’ Handling of Vietnam Overshadowed Record of Achievement,” said the Washington Post in introducing its obit by Thomas Lippman.
“A fool,” wrote the journalist and author David Halberstam in his book “The Best and the Brightest.”
In Lippman’s words, McNamara served as the “primary architect of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.” During his tenure as Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, from 1961 to 1968, 16,000 American soldiers died, with another 42,000 succumbing in the succeeding seven years under Nixon.
To these may be added the countless others who were wounded physically, psychically, and spiritually – just among Americans. Millions of Vietnamese also were killed, injured, and displaced.
As McNamara’s thinking in 1967 turned away from waging war and toward negotiation, he could have made a difference by making a public break with Johnson and resigning his post. Instead, he traded his loyalty and silence for an appointment in 1968 to lead the World Bank.
In his 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” McNamara said we were “wrong, terribly wrong.” At the time, notes Weiner, the New York Times editorialized:
Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.
Indeed. As millions of people found their voices to oppose the war the longer it carried on, McNamara owed them his in their effort to stop the bloodshed carried on in their names.
Still, he and his many colleagues in leadership need not twist in the wind by themselves. As Halberstam noted, McNamara was "a prisoner of his own background...unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities."
I was 12 years old and attending summer camp on Green Lake near Chisago City, Minnesota, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1964. Three days later, The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was approved by both houses of Congress, passing unanimously in the House of Representatives and nearly so in the Senate. The resolution provided presidents Johnson and Nixon with the authorization – and the implied blank check – that they needed to conduct the military operations of the war. The attack on Aug. 4 never happened.
It took three days to mobilize the country for war. It would take years to mobilize the people for peace in sufficient numbers to elect a congress that would shut off the war's funding.
I spent the summer of 1977 campaigning in south Minneapolis as a candidate for the city council. Every citizen should stand for office at least once as the undertaking is among the best educations one can receive. Visiting with voters at their doors provides the opportunity to be embraced, rejected, applauded, dismissed, and challenged in every way. You meet everyone you can imagine.
One hot day, I was invited inside by a resident of one house. It was the home of a family whose son had been killed in Vietnam. At the time, I told myself I would never forget the particulars of their story; unfortunately, I have. What has stayed with me, however, was the utter emptiness and absence of life in that house. For its residents, time had stopped. I was running for municipal office, but for these folks their enduring relationship to government would always focus on the national forces that had taken their child. It was my first personalized insight into the sacred trust that should bind citizens and their elected officials.
Frequently, presidents talk to or meet with the surviving relatives of soldiers killed in the nation's service. In his diary entry for Sept. 6, 1983, President Reagan noted his call to the parents of two U.S. Marines killed in Lebanon: "One father asked if they were in Lebanon for anything that was worth his son's life." Although their policies and directives may not change as a result of such interactions, I think it is important that presidents and others have the experiences.
My friend, John, graduated from Columbia University last year and since has been working with AmeriCorps. He came here to Pickerel Lake with us during a too-brief visit last fall. We had met 10 years earlier when he moved to Minnesota as a young dancer, fresh from high school. After two years, he returned to California to dance with a company there. He has dropped in to visit us a few times over the years, and we have traveled to both coasts to see his performances.
As a dancer, as a student, and on his own initiative, John has had the opportunity to travel and take the measure of most of the U.S. and much of the world, including Australia, South America, and Europe.
Various sets of past circumstances could have conspired to make of him a soldier, fighting in my name, and yours. I mean no disrespect to any soldier when I acknowledge that I cannot dwell long on that thought – it is too painful to contemplate. In following the dictates of his own conscience, John may become a lifelong warrior of a different sort, but one who also makes it more difficult for nations and people to choose wars.
I am grateful that he added his essence to the mists on these shores. Among others, his presence was a memorable element of a weekend retreat to northwestern Wisconsin.