NEA Literature Fellowships

Paul Hendrickson

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(2002 - Prose)

from "PART ONE: At the Open Noon of His Pride"
The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War

In the Winter of 1955

His wife wasn't drinking milk with her Scotch in the hope her stomach might hurt a little less - not then. A man bearing a child hadn't set himself on fire below his Pentagon window - not yet. A wigged-out woman hadn't stolen up behind his seat in an outdoor cafe in the Kodak winter sun of Aspen to begin shrieking there was blood on his hands. (He was applying ketchup to his hamburger.) A Viet Cong agent - his name was Nguyen Van Troi -- hadn't been found stringing fuses beneath a Saigon bridge he was due to pass over. Odd metaphors and strange turns of phrase weren't seeping from him like moons of dark ink. His pressed white shirts weren't hanging loose at his neck. He wasn't reading Homer late at night in an effort to compose himself. His dyslexic and ulcerated son hadn't been shown in a national newsmagazine with his ropes of long hair and kindly face reading aloud a list of war dead at the San Francisco airport. Reputed members of an organization called the Symbionese Liberation Army didn't have stored in a Berkeley garage some crudely drawn but surprisingly detailed descriptions of the interior and exterior of his resort home in Snowmass, along with thumb-nail sketches of members of his family. (WIFE: name unknown to me. She is small, not outstanding in appearance & probably not aggressive. . .") He hadn't stood in the Pentagon briefing room in front of his graphs and bar-charts to say with perfect seriousness, "So it is fifteen percent of ten percent of thirteen-thirtieths that have been in dispute here. . ." He hadn't stood on the tarmac at Andrews, at the rollaway steps of his blue-tailed C-135, before winging to a high-level CINCPAC meeting in Honolulu, and told another tangle of lies into a tangle of microphones, made more artfully disingenuous statements to the press boys, this time about the kind of forces - which is to say, combat forces - soon to be shipped to the secretly escalated war. ("No, uh, principally logistical support -- arms, munitions, training, assistance.") He hadn't hunched forward in his field fatigues at a news conference in Saigon and said, as though trying to hug himself, and with only the slightest belying stammers, "The military operations have progressed very satisfactorily during the past year. The rate of progress has exceeded our expectations. The pressure on the Viet Cong, measured in terms of the casualties they have suffered, the destruction of their units, the measurable effect on their morale, have all been greater than we anticipated" -- when, in fact, the nations chrome-hard secretary of defense had already given up believing, in private, a long while ago, that the thing was winnable in any military sense. The president of the United States hadn't called him up to yell, "How can I hit them in the nuts, Bob? Tell me how I can hit them in the nuts!" -- the them being little men in black pajamas in a skinny curve of an unfathomable country 10,000 miles distant. He hadn't yet gone to this same president and told him he was afraid of breaking down. The expressions "body count" and "kill ratio" and "pacification" and "incursion" hadn't come into the language in the way snow -- to use Orwell's image -- falls on an obscene landscape. The casualty figures of U.S. dead and missing and wounded hadn't spumed, like crimson geysers, past the once unthinkable 100,000 mark. Nor had this man risen at a luncheon in Dean Rusk's private dining room at the state department (it happened on February 27, 1968, forty-eight hours before he left office) and, without warning, begun coming apart before Rusk and dark Clifford and Bill Bundy and Walt Rostow and Joe Califano and Harry McPherson, telling them between stifled sobs, between what sounded like small asphixiating noises, between the bitter rivers of his cursing, that the goddamned Air Force, they're dropping tonnage on Vietnam at a higher rate than we dropped on Germany in the last part of World War II, we've practically leveled the place, and what's it done, nothing, a goddamned nothing, and Christ here's Westmoreland asking for another 205,000 troops, ifs madness, can't anybody see, this thing has to be gotten hold of, it's out of control I tell you. . .


None of this.

Not yet.

It all lay waiting in the decades up ahead.

Because in the winter of 1955, Robert Strange McNamara was making cars in Dearborn, Michigan. And his soul seemed his own. And America had barely heard his name.

Paul Hendrickson has written for magazines and newspapers for more than thirty years. He was a staff feature writer in the Style section of The Washington Post from 1977 to January 2001. Now he has a full-time appointment in the creative writing program at Penn. He teaches advanced nonfiction and a workshop in the documentary tradition. At The Washington Post he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize six times. He has published three books, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The most recent of these three nonfiction works, The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War (1996); earned many distinctions, including a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Publisher's Weekly Best Books of the Year. The book was published in several foreign countries. Hendrickson has been awarded various fellowships and numerous journalism honors and awards. In 1999 he was named a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow for his current nonfiction work-in-progress, which concerns studying the legacy of racism in the families of seven Mississippi sheriffs of the 1960s. The entire narrative derives from a single black and white photograph. For the last four years Hendrickson has been traveling in the South researching and writing the book, which is under contract to Alfred A. Knop at Random House, where his previous books were published. Hendrickson was partially educated in the South, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in a seminary for the Catholic missionary priesthood. He has degrees in American literature from St. Louis University and Pennsylvania State University. He is married and lives with his family in Takoma Park, Maryland. Oh; yes: He's batty about teaching at Penn. He came relatively late in his life to this wonderful institution and these wonderful students.

Photo by Joyve Ravid

Author's Statement