It's a little hard to have a neutral opinion of Robert Strange McNamara if you're of a certain age. President of Ford Motor Company and a quantifying "Whiz Kid," he was appointed Secretary of Defense by John F. Kennedy, where he shortly showed what a Secretary of Defense should neither be nor do.
I say business
for a reason, as McNamara seemed to regard mankind's bloodiest enterprise as a bloodless, emotionless, soulless exercise in numbers. An architect of the Vietnam War, he was a proponent of using metrics such as the body count to measure progress and outcomes.
I will admit that I am not an admirer. In fact I'll brag about it.
One can't wage war as though it was a matter of selling cars; war is not that neat. It is messy, filthy, and emotional; at the lowest levels soldiers do not think of the numbers, and at the highest national will can be a lot more difficult to quantify than McNamara could neither know nor admit. There was no room in McNamara's awareness for the single-mindedness of a Ho Chi Minh
, who didn't give a damn about what the numbers said.
Screw the statistics, he just wanted to win.
I view McNamara as one of the villains of American history, a misguided fool who dressed some of the government's dumbest ideas in an intellectual, logical dignity.
In their obituary, MSNBC.com
gives attention to his post-Defense roles, as head of the World Bank
and advocate of nuclear disarmament and the transfer of wealth from the world's richest nations to the world's poorest. It even dignifies him with a description as "a global elder statesman."
CNN's online obituary
damns with faint praise, basically cutting off at his departure from government, summing up his later career with the words, "After leaving the Pentagon in early 1968, McNamara spent 12 years leading the World Bank."
A particularly negative commentary
comes from Joe Galloway, veteran journalist and co-author of We Were Soldiers Once... And Young
. Galloway's article begins with a quote from Clarence Darrow: "I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure." From there, he goes to state that "Well, the aptly named Robert Strange McNamara has finally shuffled off to join LBJ and Dick Nixon in the 7th level of Hell."
McNamara, to my mind, might deserve the fifth level of hell, so perhaps Galloway overstated things just a bit. Still, "global elder statesmen" is a title that sticks in my throat; at best McNamara was trying to make up for previous bad acts, kind of like a compulsive computer criminal who becomes an advocate for better cybersecurity.
Not that Robert S. McNamara was an actual criminal; his intentions might have even been good. But isn't that how the roads to all levels of hell are paved?