Robert McFarlane is a repentant sinner. His book tells how he sinned and tried to repent. One wants to sympathize with him, but he presents some peculiar problems. He did not sin as much as he thought he did, and he repented mainly for what others should have repented.
His book is not merely about his sin and repentance. It contains 124 pages on the Iran-contra affairs, in which repentance obviously has its place. But it contains 241 pages on the rest of his career, about which he has no qualms. This proportion seems to make the latter more important than the former, though we are chiefly interested in the former. Nevertheless, McFarlane’s career has an interest of its own as an example of making one’s way in Washington, its swift turnabout, and its psychological price.
McFarlane’s career, from the time he entered the Naval Academy in 1955 to his downfall in 1986, went from one success to another. He commanded the first Marine artillery unit to land in Vietnam in March 1965. The Marine Corps clearly prepared McFarlane for bigger things. He was sent for two years to study at the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva. He spent three years at the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, a posting which enabled him to work with representatives of the other services.
But in 1971, McFarlane made a move that suggested where he was heading. He obtained a White House Fellowship that took him for a year into the political powerhouse of the country. After that, still a marine, he succeeded in joining the staff of Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser. By 1975, he was Kissinger’s military assistant and later chief of staff. This experience showed him how power was used and reputations made in Washington: “Not only was Kissinger demanding and dogmatic, a man who did not tolerate rational argument with temperance or any measure of good grace, he was also distrustful, hypocritical, routinely dishonest and abusive to his friends.”
After five years of civilian service under Nixon and Ford, McFarlane spent a year and a half writing a book, Crisis Resolution, at the National War College. We are not told what happened to it. Now a lieutenant colonel, he put on the Marine uniform again and shipped out to Okinawa for his final tour. His long absence from the Marines now put him at a disadvantage, as he discovered when he was refused command of a battalion. Fortunately, he received the Naval Institute’s Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Literary Achievement—again we are not told for what—which took him back to Washington for the awards ceremony. He made the most of the opportunity by getting Senator John Tower of Texas to hire him as a staff aide for the Republican minority of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1979 and worked in Washington for the next eighteen months.
By this time, McFarlane was prepared for his big chance. He had spent…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.