Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Thousand-Yard Stare

In many ways, I guess, it was timely that Robert McNamara died earlier this week.

Some of you may not know the name, but he was the secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. In fact, it was often said that the Vietnam War was McNamara's war — not unlike the way that the Iraq War has been linked to Donald Rumsfeld, although George Bush and Dick Cheney deserve their portion of the blame, as does Colin Powell.

McNamara defended the U.S. presence in Vietnam for a long time, but late in his life, he sought to atone, in an interview and the voiceovers for archival footage in a 2003 documentary about his time as secretary of Defense called "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

I saw that movie a few years ago, and I can recommend it. When I saw it, we were still about two years away from the next presidential election, and I felt that the people who had the most to gain from seeing it, the ones who could influence U.S. policy right away, probably would never watch it.

McNamara's atonement came too late for many Vietnam vets, but his death reminded me of something that I used to hear mentioned fairly frequently during the days of Vietnam — the "Thousand–Yard Stare." That's the phrase that was given to the somewhat vacant stare that one often sees in a serviceman who has been through a horrific battle.

I think it was first widely used to describe veterans suffering from "battle fatigue" (now called "post–traumatic stress disorder") during World War II. As a child, I heard the phrase used to describe Vietnam vets.

Since McNamara's death — in between network reports on Michael Jackson — I've been thinking about the "Thousand–Yard Stare" — and I have been wondering if it is due for a comeback. Perhaps it will be applicable to many of those who have had to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the phrase actually refers to a reaction to intense stress, which is not necessarily confined to combat.

So it's my guess that we'll start seeing the "Thousand–Yard Stare" in the faces of people who have been unemployed for a long time or who have lost their homes.

I'm sure Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been trying, and I know that improvements in the employment picture typically lag behind everything else, but after six months and the passage of an economic stimulus package with a price tag of nearly $800 billion, I had hoped to see better than a one–month reversal of the hemorrhaging of jobs from the economy.

Am I expecting too much? Maybe. But, when Biden tells a Sunday TV audience that the administration "misread" the economy and Obama says they received incomplete information, I just can't help feeling Obama and Biden are in over their heads. Maybe anyone would be.

I hope I'm wrong. Dear God, I hope I'm wrong.


john said...

Hi David,

It's possible that the Obama administration is in over its head, but I am not sure that the comparison is apt. Some wars can be ended with decisions, and the Vietnam War was probably one of them (of course some wars really are more complicated, say like WWII). But the economy cannot be so simply addressed. Moreover, where one might be able to sustain the claim that McNamara *put* those young people over in Vietnam, it's not at all possible to say that Obama or Biden *put* anyone out of work. Indeed, if anyone should be bearing the guilt for the economy today in the way that McNamara did with regard to Vietnam, it's Alan Greenspan and then George W. Bush.

David said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can't argue with what you say.

But I would like to say that my intent was not to put the blame for anything on anyone, but rather to compare the reactions of people subjected to intense stress. As I mentioned in my post, the thousand-yard stare is not a phenomenon of combat, but it is in the combat context, in particular the context of Vietnam, that I have heard the phrase mentioned. That was why McNamara's death reminded me of it.

And I am confident that anyone who is unemployed these days feels as shell-shocked as any veteran of any war.