TOPICS > Politics

How Do They Live With Themselves

January 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESPERSON: What about the contention that your attitude is sometimes arrogant? You never admit you were wrong. Have you ever been wrong, sir?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Some years ago, I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine called “How Do They Live With Themselves?” The story was about the tobacco industry, and asked the title question of top Philip Morris executives — all very smart, well-educated, otherwise good citizens — whose manufacture of cigarettes resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

“How do you live with yourself?” I asked them in so many words. And they answered in so many words, “We manage.”

They came to mind recently as I watched the harrowing, yet not sympathetic figure, of Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under JFK and LBJ, explain how he lives with himself in the documentary film titled, “The Fog of War.”

A great deal of the film focuses on McNamara’s face, drawn down like a bulldog’s, and especially his eyes, which are as unmoving as his pair of glasses. The eyes provide a text of their own, sometimes running counter to his words.

They bear the “how did this happen?” look — the question applying to a life, like that of the tobacco executives, connected to the deaths of others. If anyone ever needed proof that a high intelligence is a minor virtue, here it is. McNamara asks highly intelligent questions.

He speaks of the Tokyo fire bombings, in which he was also involved as a military analyst. He asks, given the natural murderousness of all wars, is a war criminal only one who loses a war? The question touches on all modern warfare — the strategic bombing of civilian populations in London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the so-called collateral damage in Iraq. But of course, in this case it is asked by the one who directed the bombing.

So the question, rather than being abstract, becomes a private expression of torment. And McNamara, no question, is tormented. Why then does one’s heart not go out to a fellow human being in moral crisis — not only because of the enormity of the act, but because McNamara does not ask for compassion. McNamara is a problem solver, modern technological man in charge of the universe.

The same mind that directed bombers, when put in charge of the Ford Motor Co., looked for safer cars. He solved that problem by dropping human skulls down a stairwell to see how much they could take.

In the film, he is still trying to understand the mechanisms of morality with the same impassive studiousness. You do your job. You’re a doctor, a teacher, or you build cluster bombs that blow the limbs off children.

How do you live with yourself? You manage. I do not compare a war to deliberate genocide. Still, the mental process of the administration of genocide is similar. The railroad schedule keepers, the bureaucrats of the Nazi gas chambers —

FRANZ SUCHOMEL, SS Unterscharfuhrer, Treblinka (“Shoah” — translated on screen): Keep this in mind. Treblinka was a primitive, but efficient production line of death. A production line — of death. Understand?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: How does live with oneself when the product and profit of one’s labor is killing? One solves the problem. McNamara puts it:

ROBERT McNAMARA: I think the human race needs to think more about killing.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In the film, it is as if he wants to see himself at the other end of the camera to decipher the life he recounts. The eyes seem to ask without imploring: Can you tell me how to live with myself? And the question is void of emotion.

He has become his last problem, which he only seems to address to others, to us, and which only he can solve. This is why no one answers. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.