Lessons from Robert McNamara

I once had a girlfriend whose husband was a lyin' cheat. He was a no-good-sum-of-bitch as my kin folk would say. Even my Christian kinfolk used that term when necessary. "If the shoe fits," they'd add, with a wry grin.

Now his friends didn't feel that way about him. They liked him. He was a good ole boy among his buddies. He liked to hunt and fish and drink beer. Lots of beer.

He also liked to get it on, if you know what I mean. My girlfriend had been married to this man for 20 some years when she walked in on him one afternoon, nekkid as the day he was born, and found him humping the church organist.

Just so happened that the church organist was one of her best girlfriends, or so she'd thought, until that moment.

To her credit, my friend didn't kill either one of them. She didn't even raise a ruckus. She just quietly turned and walked out of the house, with the nekkid church organist clinging to her feet begging for forgiveness.

My girlfriend felt real bad about that later. Felt like she had done something wrong when, in fact, if that had been me I might have headed for the kitchen in search of a butcher knife. I'd have to cut me somebody.

My husband knows what a hot-headed woman I am. I suspect that's why he doesn't sleep around. He knows I'd cut him bad if I ever caught him.

But my girlfriend, she's the meek and mild type. A real sweetheart of a girl. She was raised up Baptist and has spent her whole entire life trying to do that Jesus thing -- love people. So a couple of weeks after she found her husband and her best friend doing the horizontal tango, she baked a cake and carried it over to the home of the former church organist.

Now I have never understood this. Never. I still don't. But in my girlfriend's mind she felt like she needed to patch things up, to fix it. So she baked her husband's mistress a cake and took it to her and asked her forgiveness.

Years later, after about a decade of therapy, my girlfriend realized that there is just something wrong with a woman who feels that much guilt over being wronged by others.

Forgiveness can be a complicated matter. I'm no theologian nor am I any great scholar but sometimes a person just knows that wait up one second, something ain't right about this.

That's how I've been feeling about some of the remarks that have been made in response to a blog post by author Donald Miller .

Miller wrote a fine piece about the need for people, leaders in particular, to admit when they've been wrong. Where he went sideways with the piece, however, is when he chose Robert McNamara as an example of a man who did a noble thing by admitting that he was wrong.

I said as much in a post on Miller's site and in another blog post and I be dadgum if there weren't people writing in saying how it was that they were going to be praying for me. They assumed that I am harboring some great bitterness toward Robert McNamara. They probably would like for me to bake his family a cake and take it to them.

Now I'm not saying my heart is pure-tee white because it sure enough ain't. It's as black as any other two-legged creature walking the face of this good earth.

But Robert McNamara did some really horrible bad things in his lifetime. Things worse than humping your wife's best gal pal. Though if he did that, too, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn it. The kind of things McNamara did cost men and women their lives. Thousands of men and women. And if he didn't know that then, he certainly came to realize it in the dark of the night, or at least that's my hope.

He went on to make a butt-load of money and to live the high life, while those whose lives he helped decimate had a hard time paying the light bill and staying sober. If Robert McNamara wasn't haunted by his wrongdoings, a whole heck of a lot of other people sure were.

McNamara wrote a book later in life about how he messed things up in Vietnam. He said he was sorry about that. I heard him interviewed on NPR when his book came out. When one public official holding a high flutin' office in DC was asked about McNamara's book, she replied that we had not sent our brightest and best to fight the war in Vietnam.

I ain't going to lie to you. That smarted right bad. My daddy died in that war and while it has taken me years to sort all of this out, that woman in DC who made that remark was just plain sorry, but not in the apologetic way.

In 2003, I went to Vietnam, to my daddy's battlefield where I learned all kinds of lessons, one of which was about forgiveness. I came home a changed woman.

I learned things walking the red dirt fields that border the Ia Drang Valley that I could never learn from reading a red-letter Bible. I like to think Jesus sent me there to learn those things. I even wrote a book about all that.

I don't mean to repeat myself but it bears repeating: Forgiveness is a complicated matter.

Christians are all the time going about trying to "fix" other people. Trying to patch things up.

That can be a good thing.

But it can be a wrongheaded thing, too.

Robert McNamara went on to make a movie about his role in the Vietnam War. That movie is called The Fog of War. I have not seen it, nor will I.

But my historian husband has watched it and so has my good buddy Joe Galloway. Joe was a military correspondent in Vietnam. He watched his buddies die there. Joe still weeps over all the horrors he witnessed in that war. Joe's got a good heart. A loving heart. A Jesus heart in many ways.

This is the thing that happens when new generations come along and they don't learn their history. They see some flick and think, Wow, that was radical dude.
When it wasn't radical at all -- it was just more lies heaped on the ashes of soldiers dead and gone.

I can't say for sure how sorry Robert McNamara truly was or wasn't. What I can say for sure, however, is that throughout his life he kept his distance from truth.

I don't feel that way because of some unforgiveness in my heart. I don't lie awake at night thinking of ways to cut the man. He's dead now anyway but even when he was alive, I didn't do that.

But I don't for one nanosecond believe that Robert McNamara did a noble thing by apologizing in his book or in that flick of his. Joe says McNamara was just telling more lies.

Maybe he wasn't apologizing at all. Maybe he was just trying to rewrite history for a new generation that doesn't know any better. A generation that might one day come to think of Robert McNamara as a man who did a noble thing. A generation who is surely going to have to come to terms with their own legacy of half-truths and bad wars and broken lives.

I agree with Miller in one regard -- there is an important lesson to be learned from Robert McNamara. The one I learned from studying him is that forgiveness won't suffice where redemption is needed.


  1. Finally! A post this East Tennessee boy can read.

  2. Karen, I'm sorry to hear about your dad. I can only imagine the pain (as someone who grew up dadless, I cannot relate, but I'm sure it was and is painful). I'm sure that nobody who said they will pray for you meant any harm. But I'm sure you know that.

    I have found that in a general sense (not directed toward you but because you brought up the topic of forgiveness, I'm including it here) that forgiveness frees the forgiver in astounding ways. It releases a burden. A minister named Jamie Lash says that unforgiveness is like swallowing a poison pill and waiting for the other person to die.

    I'm glad that your trip to Vietnam allowed you to experience forgiveness for McNamera and other orchestraters of the Vietnam war.

  3. By the way, I have a sister in law who did catch her husband cheating with her very best friend. They ended up getting married. It took a few years, but she was able to completely forgive her. She invited her to bible study. There was sincere apology and tears and repentance and forgiveness. Now they live in separate cities, but she has a picture of the two of them together in her living room, enclosed in a frame which simply says "Friends". She is free of bitterness. It's been a great thing to watch.

    She's not a pushover, and doesn't blame herself, because she knows she did nothing wrong. She just knows she's better off completely forgiving the girl who took her husband. And she's right.

  4. I see your point, but I don't think forgiveness is ever wrongheaded. As you yourself said, you can't know his heart - you don't know whether he "meant" it or not. I don't think we're called to judge a person's intentions in that way. I do think we can celebrate brokenness and repentance.

    I don't know whether he was broken or whether he repented myself. I don't know much about him and he could very well have gone on to reverse his position yet again.

    When Jesus was asked how often we're to forgive somebody their wrongdoings, his answer wasn't "until he's done a lot of wrong to a lot of people." Forgiving acts like McNamara's speaks to God's grace inside of us more than it speaks to McNamara's goodness.

  5. Sometimes it's pretty much impossible to forgive those that have done you wrong. those that don't understand this have never been through anything like it. It's very human to lack forgiveness for somebody that has harmed you. Thank you for posting.

  6. Dear J:
    I want to choose my words carefully here, because I have not known what it's like to lose a dad like Karen has, so I want to be very clear that I don't criticize her if she hasn't yet forgiven McNamara and others responsible for her loss.

    But I cannot let your statement go by without registering some disagreement. God has said very clearly that we are to forgive. It's a command. We don't get to say back to Him that sometimes it's impossible to do what He has commanded. That's placing ourselves above Him.

    If He has told us to do something, you can darn well be sure of 2 things:

    1. He knew ahead of time what horrible circumstances we were to go through, even though it was 2000 years after He issued the command.

    2. He doesn't tell us to do something and then not equip us to do so.

    Of course, this goes back to the real definition of forgiveness, spelled out so well by some in the comment section of Don's blog. It doesn't mean pretending it didn't happen. It doesn't mean you have to stop grieving or pretend it doesn't hurt. It means you let go of hate in your heart. It means you let go of wishing the worst for the person who hurt you. It means letting God carry it.

    2 great examples of forgiveness;
    1. Jesus, of course. On the Cross.
    2. http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/05/15/amanpour.rwanda/index.html

  7. James,
    My apologies! I didn’t mean to imply that forgiveness was not biblical! Lol Honestly I was just trying to be sympathetic and non judgmental. The last thing I wanted to do was preach to Karen. I’m sure she has read the bible and realizes that forgiveness is a key concept in the word. I wanted to let her know that when she is ready to let go of the heaviness of resent that she certainly should, but that NONE of us are above being “unforgiving” sometimes. Sure we try to be and of course we should be, but the truth is that if something bad enough happens in our lives, it will be difficult (not impossible) to forgive. Bottom line, it’s not up to me to get her to forgive that is the Spirit’s job. That’s all I meant to say, my apologies if I implied otherwise.

  8. It is sadly curious to me that this became about "Karen's issue with forgiveness" rather than McNamara's issue with redemption.

  9. Just because you are clearly bitter toward the man, and because your buddy, Joe, said so doesn't give any evidence to the fact that the man was not truly sorry for his actions. Just look at the life of Saul/Paul and go listen to Kenny Chesney...Some people change.

  10. Dear Anon. Go read After the Flag has been Folded, or Where's Your Jesus Now and then we can have an informed discussion about McNamara or whether or not people can change. And Kenny Chesney? I'm totally befuddled by that suggestion.

  11. Ah, Kenny Chesney...is there any truth he doesn't speak?

  12. Karen, I guess I was thinking that we don't have any insight into what God really has or hasn't done in the hearts of other people. We can't possibly know what Robert McNamara feels, felt, struggled with, faked, any of it. The only thing we can control is our own reactions. The only guidance we have as to what to do when someone wrongs people over and over again and asks for forgiveness is Jesus' own words on the matter, which were to continue to forgive.

    That's not to say forgiveness is simple. As you say, it's complicated. We like to think we deserve recompense, that forgiving is an easy way out. It looks that way. It never feels that way, though. It's much harder to do than to remain hard and bitter about other people's actions, particularly if they suffered in no obvious way as a result of those actions.

    It's exactly what Christ did for us, though, and I think it's one of the ways we can demonstrate both that we're his and what he can do for others. He's forgiven things in me that I've never suffered consequences for, many times over. Do I deserve free forgiveness? Absolutely not. That's kind of the point.

    Forgiveness always speaks more to our own hearts than it does to the hearts of those we're forgiving. I hate that you've felt piled-up on about this post and about your comments to Don's blog entry. I guess we all know people who want forgiveness who don't deserve it, so we identify with what you're feeling. I am speaking encouragement to my own heart on this issue, frankly. It's not easy.

  13. I just read your comments to Kacie on your own blog - I wish you'd said those things here! I think it would have been a great discussion.

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  15. Feel free to continue that discussion here, Delaney. I don't see what I've said there that is any different than what I've said here or over on Miller's original post.