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The scars of Vietnam


Norman Morrison was a Quaker. He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing. He came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline, burned himself to death, below my office. He held a child in his arms, his daughter. Passers-by shouted, 'Save the child.' He threw the child. The child lived and is alive today.

"His wife issued a very moving statement: 'Human beings must stop killing other human beings.' And that's a belief 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, recognizing at times you must engage in evil to minimize it."

Thus former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara describes the immolation of Norman Morrison in the new documentary The Fog of War, now playing at the Charles Theater.

The biographical film focuses on McNamara as a technician of war during the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II and as a planner of war in Vietnam. He's 87 now, but forceful in defining his life. His face fills most of the screen during much of the film. He looks and sounds like a man who believes what he's saying.

In the brief moment when he mentions Morrison, the Baltimore man who took his own life in protest of the war on Nov. 2, 1965, he stares straight into the camera. His voice catches a bit. But not as much as it did when President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom for his seven years as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. His eyes welled with tears on that occasion, and he could barely speak.

Norman Morrison's widow has not yet seen The Fog of War. She's Mrs. Anne Morrison Welsh now, and lives in Black Mountain, N.C. She and Morrison were living in Govans on that day in 1965 when he drove to Washington in an old Cadillac, infant daughter Emily in tow, to burn himself to death beneath McNamara's window.

Morrison was a profoundly, almost mystically, religious man. He and Anne had been Quakers since early in their marriage. They were members of the Stony Run Friends Meeting. He was the executive director. Her voice often chokes with sorrow and she speaks with difficulty when she recounts memories of him. She recalls that time with great clarity, compassion and large-hearted forgiveness.

Welsh has read significant portions of McNamara's 1996 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, notably the one page about her husband.

McNamara wrote: "Morrison's death 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. ... I believe I understood and shared some of his thoughts."

Of the war he shaped for seven years, one some called "McNamara's War," he now says, "We were wrong, terribly wrong."

Letter to McNamara

During the first of two hourlong interviews, Welsh notes that at the time the book came out, "no other public official connected with the war had made such a commitment or acknowledgement."

She was moved to write him.

"I was grateful that McNamara was able to do that to the extent that he did," she says. "I felt it was unusual and that it should be appreciated. So I sent him a letter of gratitude for going public with his conclusion that [the war] was a grave mistake. I know he didn't go as far as most of his critics felt he should, critics of the book, or responding to the book."

The semi-perpetual dissident, Noam Chomsky, for example, said the book had a kind of ring of honesty about it: "What it reads like is an extremely narrow technocrat, a small-time engineer who was given a particular job to do and just tried to do that job efficiently, didn't understand anything that was going on, including what he himself was doing."

McNamara called Welsh soon after he received her letter. They talked for 10 or 15 minutes.

"He expressed appreciation," she says, "and asked for permission to use it as he publicized the book. I said, sure. So he did exactly that. He and I actually had a very humane and cordial telephone conversation. It was a good talk. We shared how our families had been so deeply affected by the war.

"He admitted, personally, that his family had been deeply affected by Norman's death. But ... he says in In Retrospect, he bottled up those emotions and really didn't deal with them himself as a person within the family."

Bottled-up emotions

In The Fog of War, McNamara's voice cracks and he declines to talk about how Morrison's act affected his family. In the book, he says he knew that his wife, Margaret, and their three children shared many of Morrison's feelings about the war. Morrison's immolation "created tension that only deepened as dissent and criticism of the war continued to grow." He calls his tendency to turn inward and avoid talking with his family about his emotions "a grave mistake."

Welsh empathizes strongly.

"As a mother of three children," she says, "and as a person, I myself felt that I sort of had to be brave and carry on in our Quaker efforts to help end the war. I held a lot inside, too. So I had a lot of feeling for him on that basis."

Emily, the child Morrison held in his arms until the last moment before he was consumed by fire, lives near her mother in Black Mountain. Welsh spends a lot of time with her grandchildren, Jesse 4, Everett, 18 months, "and they're as good as they can be - of course." Her older daughter, Christina, lives in Austin, Texas, with three older stepchildren. Her husband, Robert, has three grandchildren from a previous marriage. So she's the matriarch of a fairly large extended family.

Her son, Ben, died of cancer when he was 16.

"That was the hardest thing," she says.

She sucks in her breath to avoid her tears at the memory and continues the conversation.

"I still feel that [McNamara's] a man who can almost say he's sorry and ask forgiveness. He's very close," she says. "Compared with most public officials, he's gone so far. I think he genuinely wants to prevent other Vietnams and he genuinely wants to work for world peace."

Visited Vietnam

Welsh and her daughters visited Vietnam in 1999. McNamara had gone back in 1995, soon after his book was published.

"By and large," she says, "the Vietnamese people were so welcoming and friendly it really seemed they had forgiven America for the suffering that they endured and that their land endured.

"We kind of got red-carpet treatment because Norman's action was so incredibly profound for them. ... They considered him a saint. ... I kept telling them he wasn't a saint. He was just an ordinary person with a deep sense of conscience and a concern about world peace."

McNamara's return to Vietnam came 30 years after his first visit as secretary of defense in 1965. He said he was treated "with cordiality, not hostility."

But he was received with something less than reverence. In the film, he describes an encounter with a former foreign minister.

"Mr. McNamara, you must never have read a history book," the Vietnamese official says. "If you'd had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. Mr. McNamara, don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man and we were determined to do so. And no amount of money and no amount of U.S. pressure would ever stop us."

McNamara may have understood. When he left the Defense Department in 1968, he did believe the war was unwinnable. But the war went on for seven more years. Thirty-three thousand more Americans died and hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of Vietnamese.

When Norman Morrison sacrificed himself beneath McNamara's window in 1965, about 2,200 Americans had died in Vietnam.

McNamara, Anne Welsh concludes, "must have a conscience. Somewhere there's a heavy load of guilt. There must be. There would have to be."

But in the film, McNamara refuses to discuss any feelings of guilt.

"I really don't want to go any further," he says. "It just opens more controversy."

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