cover image The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War

The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War

Paul Hendrickson. Alfred A. Knopf, $27.5 (414pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42761-2

In 1983, Washington Post reporter Hendrickson (Looking for the Light) saw Robert S. McNamara on TV and was moved to write a series of articles about the man who served as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. Those pieces became the springboard for this exhaustively researched, probing, important contribution to the annals of American history. Using McNamara as his central, overshadowing subject, Hendrickson interweaves the stories of five others caught up in the whirlwind of the times: an artist who tried to kill McNamara by flinging him off a ferry in 1972; a Marine who fought in the war; a Quaker who immolated himself in protest against the war; a nurse who served in Vietnam; and a Saigon native who suffered horribly at the hands of the Communists. With breathtaking dexterity, Hendrickson juxtaposes insights on McNamara, whose life he describes as ""a kind of postwar technocratic hubristic fable,"" against episodes in the lives of those over whom McNamara wielded a distant yet very real power. Hendrickson finds that McNamara ""owned a significant conscience, which he struggled against and was continually willing to compromise""--above all, perhaps, in helping to escalate a war that he believed could not be won militarily. Hendrickson, who once studied for the priesthood, writes in a voice that is moral yet not preachy, and he is careful to identify his own mixed feelings about McNamara. Even the extensive endnotes--which include Hendrickson's recollection of slipping a note under the door to McNamara's hotel room, ""where I thought I could hear him breathing just on the other side""--are extraordinarily informative. Passionate, incisive, expertly wrought, this is a narrative that will sweep readers along in its search for truth, a classic that will be pored over for years to come. Photos not seen by PW. 100,000 first printing; first serial to the Washington Post; simultaneous Random House Audiobook; author tour. (Sept.)