Home > Uncategorized > Craig McNamara’s story – posted 7/24/2022

Craig McNamara’s story – posted 7/24/2022

As a sixties survivor, I am conscious of being part of a shrinking community. So many comrades are already gone. Because the sixties are invoked so much, I also admit to being hyper-critical about depictions that attempt to convey that time. There are not many that pass muster but Craig McNamara’s book, Because Our Fathers Lied, is unique. The title comes from a Rudyard Kipling poem:

“If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied”

Craig McNamara is the son of Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and the architect of the Vietnam war under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. His book exposes a lifelong struggle to come to terms with being the son of a war criminal but a war criminal he loved. It also honestly recounts a 60’s story in the best hippie radical tradition.

It is difficult to transmit now how much the Vietnam war was hated by my generation then. The pointlessness, the body counts, the abject racism toward the Vietnamese and the sheer imperialist waste of it all were not lost on us. Some of us became perpetually alienated skeptics or radicals. The journalist I.F. Stone used to say all governments lie and Vietnam taught us that truth. Vietnam was our education in empire.

What is unique about Craig McNamara’s story is how he manages to balance love of a father with angry reckoning about his father’s deeds. Craig never was able to confront his father, though. His father always evaded that confrontation.

His father was the exemplar of the Camelot mythology, the best and the brightest. Robert McNamara was the data-driven whiz kid who had been plucked from running Ford Motor Company to become JFK’s Secretary of Defense. The fact that he knew little about Vietnamese history or culture did not stop him from designing disastrous policies which killed massive numbers of human beings. This is what C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, would have dubbed “crackpot realism”.

Craig ended up striking out away from any well beaten paths. After starting at Sidwell Friends, he transferred to St Paul’s School where he bombed out academically. He was dyslexic but that wasn’t recognized at the time. Still, he managed to get accepted at Stanford. But college was not for him. Like so many, he connected to the anti-war movement and activism. He experienced “a burning sadness” and deep trauma related to his father’s role. He suffered stomach ulcers. He wrote:

“This template of protest was the only thing available to make sense of the ugliness in my inner world.”

Craig describes what he calls the “chipper gene”. Typically his father would say things like “It’s a glorious day” no matter what kind of day it was. He never allowed Craig into any honest discussion of Vietnam although he vaguely acknowledged “mistakes”.

Needing a change and being determined 4-F for the draft, Craig dropped out of college and with two friends decided to ride motorcycles through Central and South America all the way to Chile. Craig spent two and a half years traveling. He and the others spoke no Spanish. They contended with motorcycle accidents, nightmarish bugs, potholes, impassable roads and unfriendly police. They had little understanding of the political landscape through which they were passing.

Arriving in Santiago, Chile in September 1971, Craig’s stay coincided with the new presidency of Salvador Allende. Allende’s election was an epic event in Latin America. He was a democratically elected Socialist, a precedent that tremendously worried then-President Nixon. Allende’s election released enormous enthusiasm and revolutionary fervor among the Chilean masses. This was Craig’s education in revolution.

Craig also was drawn to farming which really became his passion. He moved to an island where he lived in an underground cave and started a dairy cooperative. During this period, he was almost entirely cut off from his past life.

He left Chile around the time of the military coup that toppled Allende. His father had failed upward to presidency of the World Bank. The World Bank had cut off lending to Chile during the Allende years but resumed lending under the fascist Pinochet regime. Craig was horrified. After the coup in Chile, in his personal journal, Craig wrote:

“My soul is weeping and my heart is anguished. My passion for Chile and my companeros consumes me…Companero Allende, you will never be forgotten”

Upon his return to the U.S. Craig decided that farming would be his way forward. He wrote that he could not utter the word Vietnam without wanting to cry. He re-entered college at 25 to study agriculture at University of California Davis where he got a degree. His dream was to buy and run a farm.

Craig found a walnut farm in Winters, California which is in the northern part of the state. With financial help from his father, he purchased it in 1980. Craig describes worrying that others would think he rode on his father’s coattails although getting help from parents is hardly unusual.

For 42 years now, Craig has diligently worked the walnut farm. The work is very hard and not that lucrative but Craig has lived a life of integrity.

His story touches the universal theme of the difficulty of father and son relationships but it also raises questions about how to live a moral life in 2022. In watching the January 6 hearings, I have been struck by the overweening ambition and careerism of people who worked in the Trump White House, even people like Matthew Pottinger and Sarah Matthews who did the right thing and resigned.

The lure of professional success seems to have a powerful hold even when navigating a moral swamp. Whether it is love of power, prestige, desire for fame or money, professionals in the Trump orbit have seemed able to push moral considerations into the background. January 6 was hardly the start of venality and corruption in that administration

Craig McNamara’s example stands in total contrast to the get-ahead-at-any-cost mentality. Career advancement was never his yardstick.

I think the peace movement of the 1960’s played the role of necessary corrective to the sick vision of Robert McNamara and other war planners. A peace movement is something we are sorely lacking now. There are inadequate checks on the forces now pushing war and militarism. Craig McNamara stands in an honorable tradition of those who did not go along and who swam against the tide.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. jlewandohotmailcom
    July 24, 2022 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I just finished reading a message from my older brother–a year ahead of me in school–about his 57th class reunion last night. One of the many interesting things is the wide divide between those who, during the Viet Nam tragedy, went the way of Craig (my brother among them), questioning all forms of authoritarianism, and those who adopted political and religious dogmatism as their framework for thinking about the world. They had the usual common experiences to talk about–health, family, career, general life experiences–but very little common ground when it came to how they evaluate big moral and ethical questions.

  2. July 27, 2022 at 4:26 pm

    Excellent choice and review. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

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