The other Mr. McNamara

Raised during his father’s war, a Winters organic farmer cultivates fields and minds

Make salad not war: A teenager during his father’s tenure as defense secretary, Craig McNamara started farming for a better world.

Make salad not war: A teenager during his father’s tenure as defense secretary, Craig McNamara started farming for a better world.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s barely a footnote in the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War, but for one brief moment, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara dwells on the toll that the Vietnam War took on his own family life. He matter-of-factly notes that his wife and children were opposed to the war that he directed under the Johnson and Kennedy administrations. Then McNamara explains that the stress became so great for his family that his wife Margaret and teenage son both contracted painful stomach ulcers.

It’s a detail that hardly merits a mention. After all, the film is concerned with much more horrible and tragic developments of the mid-20th century: the firebombing of Japan, the near nuclear holocaust of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the millions of deaths in Vietnam.

But that footnote does hint at the lessons one of the other McNamaras drew from the war and social upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s. For Craig McNamara, the stomach ulcer he developed at age 17 was just the physical manifestation of the confusion and frustration he felt toward a society seriously out of whack.

“I think it came from trying to bridge too many disparate parts of my life,” Craig now recalls. An athlete and struggling student, he disagreed profoundly with the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, which to this day is called “Mr. McNamara’s War” by some critics.

“I was trying to be a good son, recognizing that I had significant disagreements with him over Vietnam. It was just too many tectonic plates to try and keep together,” Craig explained.

Those ulcers ultimately kept Craig out of Vietnam and nudged him onto an unlikely life path—one that led ultimately to a walnut farm just outside Winters. There, McNamara has worked for years to build a program teaching high-school kids about sustainable agriculture and environmental protection. The program, called the Center for Land Based Learning, just won the California Governor’s Award for Environmental and Economic Leadership.

For Craig, it’s the culmination of 30 years of pursuing his passions for agriculture, environmental protection and social justice. He talked with SN&R about his long journey from being a privileged son of D.C.'s political establishment to becoming a political activist, a farmer out of his depth, and ultimately a teacher. Craig also reflected on the ways American foreign policy drove him apart from his father and how the issue of U.S. military adventures abroad now have drawn the two men together again.

Early this spring, about three dozen high-school students hunkered down in Craig’s freezing barn, staring through their breath at an impressive but slightly spooky barn owl. The owl stared back at them, one by one, his throat feathers fluttering with nervousness.

He was a beautiful, if somewhat anxious, participant in a lecture by volunteers from the UC Davis Raptor Center. The Davis folks trotted out a whole suite of local raptors—owls, hawks, kestrels and kites—each eliciting oohs and aahs from the assembled students. Many had never been to a farm and had never had much experience with native wildlife before they started coming to the Center for Land Based Learning last fall.

“They have not had the opportunity,” said Craig, “to see the world we are presenting here—literally, physically, have not had the opportunity to get out of their communities, to see that just 35 minutes away is a world with ring-necked snakes and mice and lizards, and plants and edible food.”

The center, headquartered at Craig’s Sierra Orchards walnut farm near Winters, brings high-school kids from all over the Sacramento region to learn about the principles of sustainable agriculture. Here, and on other farms throughout the state, inner-city kids learn about environmentally friendly farming methods and environmental restoration.

Throughout the course of this particular day, the students from Grant High School, Sacramento High, Luther Burbank High and other area high schools would learn about the effects that pesticide and habitat destruction are having on native hawks, owls and other raptors. They also would learn how farmers can provide habitat for native birds that control insects and other pests, and thereby avoid having to use chemical pesticides.

But Craig doesn’t just preach sustainable agriculture to the students; he shows them how to do it.

Soon the screeches and hoots of the local birds of prey gave way to the pounding of hammers and the white noise of drills and power sanders. Groups of goggled students had begun building a half-dozen owl houses that would later go up all over the farm.

In the process, even if they were not completely aware of it, the students were learning leadership skills as well as math and science concepts that are inherently part of the exercise.

It’s all about “new ways of cultivating fields and minds,” Craig explained. On other field trips, for example, students toured farmworker housing in Yolo County to get a sense of the issues facing the heavily Latino agricultural labor force. Still other days are spent building an irrigation system for a nearby tomato field or trying to restore a riparian oak forest on another part of the center.

For Craig and his colleagues, it’s important to re-establish a connection with agriculture—with where our food and ultimately our culture comes from—that has grown weaker with every passing generation.

“You live in a certain way for 17 years, and if it’s not on your TV clicker, it’s just not part of your world,” he said.

Craig knows firsthand the dangers of disconnectedness.

“I felt very disconnected from our society,” he said. Not unaware—I was acutely aware of what was happening. It was just very disturbing and very confusing. When your parents and your society are moving in a direction that you, as a 19-year-old, feel is incorrect, what can you do about it?”

Despite his opposition to the war, Craig—then enrolled at Stanford University—refused a student deferment and promptly was drafted. He reported to the Oakland Draft Board for what he called the “humiliating experience” of the draft-board examination. But the ulcers caused Craig to be bumped from a draft classification of 1-A to 4-F—useless to the Pentagon.

Feeling profoundly disconnected from the policies of his father and the U.S. government, and not quite sure what to do with his life, Craig left school and traveled throughout Latin America. There, he said, he learned a lot about the relationship between land, agriculture and political power.

“What I discovered was that through agriculture, I could blend my interest in food production and my politics, that I could help people,” he said.

A plan started to form in his mind, and he returned to college, this time to study plant and soil science at UC Davis. His goal was both simple and ambitious. The agriculture industry in the United States had created an unprecedented abundance of food. But when it came to the inner cities, and the nation’s poorest citizens, the system had failed.

“Even to this day, you cannot go into many inner cities and get good produce. I thought it was criminal that people in need weren’t getting high-quality food. And my goal was to try and fill that need,” Craig explained.

After two years at UC Davis, with a freshly minted degree in hand, he headed across the country in a little Datsun pickup truck. Every few hundred miles, Craig would hop out with a soil auger (a piece of metal with a T-shaped handle and a hollow tube) and sample soil. “I sampled soil all across Colorado, Missouri, Connecticut—you name it,” Craig recalled. But he ended up not far from where he started, returning to Winters.

“This really is God’s country,” Craig said of the area. The area around Winters has some of the deepest, most-fertile topsoil in the world, deposited over eons by the Coast Range streams that flow like capillaries through the land.

Of course, a college degree and good land guaranteed nothing. First of all, Craig was basically a city kid, with romantic ideas about getting back to the land, who’d spent some time in his parents’ D.C. vegetable garden and not much more.

“I had no experience at all in production agriculture,” Craig recalled, as if in wonder at the impetuous choice his younger self had made. “I was this kid who didn’t grow up on a farm, had spent two years at UC Davis studying plant science and coming out with a degree. I had taken one class where we drove a tractor—thank God for that.”

But the learning curve was too steep. “The first crop, we produced two acres of strawberries, which, to this day, I think just about killed me. My back was so wrenched from stooping to weed it and harvest it.”

Craig decided he needed an even simpler plan. He abandoned the vegetable stand where he had been selling his fruits and vegetables, and in 1980, he and his wife bought the walnut farm where they live to this day. His dream of bringing good food to inner-city residents would have to wait, as he struggled to pay the mortgage on his farm. The farm crisis of the 1980s hit just as the inexperienced farmer was breaking ground.

The Center for Land Based Learning got its start 15 years later, in 1995. Craig, who had gotten the hang of walnut farming by now, was approached by an elementary school in Sacramento that wanted to adopt a farmer as part of an agriculture-based curriculum. The field trips and animal talks Craig hosted in the beginning have grown into the Farms Leadership Program, which encompasses dozens of farms statewide and nearly 2,000 students a year. In each community, be it Chico, Yolo County, San Luis Obispo or the other sites around the state, students are hosted by a model farmer who practices environmentally friendly farming. Each site also is paired with a college or university, which helps students with research projects and exposes them early to careers in agriculture or environmental science.

In 2001, the center added another program called SLEWS (Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship), in cooperation with Audubon California. The SLEWS program is similar to Farms but is more focused on environmental restoration projects and watershed protection.

And if Craig never got to pursue his dream of bringing high-quality food to the inner city, he takes some satisfaction from bringing inner-city students to high-quality food. Last year, students from Grant High School who had participated in the Farms Leadership program began selling their own salsa and marinara sauce in the Davis and Sacramento food co-ops. Last year, the students contracted out for the ingredients and preparation. This year, Grant students are going from “farm field to shelf,” growing their own tomatoes and other ingredients and preparing the products in their kitchen.

“I never did get to sell my produce in the inner city. But these kids have developed their own product from what they’ve learned here. That’s even better. I’m not the middleman; they are doing it themselves,” he said.

Craig didn’t realize it for a while, but he had, in a way, ended up following in the footsteps of an elder McNamara—not his father Robert, but his mother Margaret Craig McNamara.

“President Kennedy gathered the Cabinet wives together and said, ‘I’m going to have your husbands working day and night. My encouragement to you is to find something that you are passionate about,'” Craig said.

Just after the family moved to Washington, D.C., it also learned that young Craig, then in fifth grade, was struggling with dyslexia.

“The work my mom did, just to help me get through school, was tremendous. I think through her help and her focus, I benefited tremendously. And I think she realized at that point just how fundamental reading really is,” Craig said.

The fifth-grader couldn’t have known then that his trouble in learning to read ultimately would be turned into a positive, leading to the creation of the nation’s largest and most successful children’s literacy program.

“I really think that the combination of my dyslexia and what President Kennedy said to her were the cornerstones for her to say, ‘Wait a minute. We live in the nation’s capital, this incredible city known throughout the world. And yet our neighbors couldn’t read or even get access to books,'” he said.

With a need to pour her energies into something, and considerable clout around Capitol Hill, Margaret founded Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), still the largest children’s-literacy program in the United States.

Margaret died in 1981, just months after Craig and his wife, Julie, purchased their walnut farm. And it was only weeks after Margaret had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then President Jimmy Carter, for founding RIF.

It wasn’t until later that Craig realized that Margaret had provided a model for his own life’s work. “She had this incredible passion and joy for teaching young people. I realize now that I have probably arrived at the same place she did in her life,” he said.

Craig said there’s a basic thread that runs through the work he is doing and the work his mother did.

“If society isn’t moving forward together, if we aren’t improving our lives together, it’s not going to be a very rich life for any of us,” he explained.

And in his own way, Craig’s father, Robert McNamara, is now carrying the same banner as his son and late wife.

Consider one of the “11 lessons” McNamara lays out in The Fog of War: “Empathize with your Enemy.”

“We must try to put ourselves in their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions,” McNamara said in the film.

These days, McNamara, though not condemning the Bush administration directly, has become a strident critic of unilateralism and has used the movie and his own books and lectures to warn that the United States will have to fundamentally change the ways it uses its power if the world is to avoid a 21st century that is as violent as the 20th was.

“He’s telling us now, ‘Look at your decisions carefully,'” said Craig of his father. “Don’t act unilaterally. Move forward and change things.”

And to get his message out, McNamara has borrowed a page from his son.

“I just got this yesterday,” Craig said, holding up a glossy magazine.

On the cover was the now-familiar image of Robert Strange McNamara, standing in his overcoat, staring at the camera with a bemused look on his face—the photo used in The Fog of War movie posters and advertisements.

This is the official teacher’s guide to The Fog of War, based on the film and endorsed by McNamara. The guide is intended for high-school teachers to provoke classroom discussions based on McNamara’s lessons.

“We are working on the same thing now. I think that’s really cool,” Craig said, laughing.

“It’s funny. We are all in this life together. Then we diverge. Certainly Vietnam was a divergence for me from my family.

“But when you maintain your love for each other, and your connection together, you can come back; you can explore and create."