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Norman Morrison, Robert McNamara and us
Are some wars worth fighting? Maybe. Not an argument we have to discuss today.
Are you willing to fight in those wars yourself or have your children or grandchildren fight in them? That sets the bar higher. To be honest, given the lack of eagerness to go and fight, most Americans have at least tacitly said no to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Still, sometimes the answer might be yes.
But 46 years ago this month, a Quaker named Norman Morrison said an emphatic no to the Vietnam war and to any more Americans fighting in that ill conceived and ultimately pointless conflict, which resulted in so many — perhaps heroic but needless — deaths. Morrison said no in a dramatic way. He went to the Pentagon, with one of his three children in tow, put her at a safe distance, then proceeded to immolate himself in front of the office of the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara.
Morrison was just shy of his 32nd birthday.
I met his wife, Anne, a few years later. Like him, she was a committed pacifist. His death was a genuine tragedy for himself, for his family and for America. In fact, that’s exactly how Robert McNamara described it: Morrison’s death, he said, was “a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.”
McNamara might have been no saint, but neither was he evil incarnate as some of his most vociferous critics at the time believed.
He later said this when pondering Morrison’s death: “[Morrison] came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline. Burned himself to death below my office … his wife issued a very moving statement — ‘human beings must stop killing other human beings’ — and that’s a belief that I shared, I shared it then, I believe it even more strongly today. … How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.”
Minimize the evil. Minimize the evil that we do to others. That might not be a great moral code to live by. But it’s a start.
Worthy of Comment
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