Robert S. McNamara Rest in... Well, Maybe Just Stay Dead

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?

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Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 10, 2009 at 10:22am
With Greene and Krulak, you hit on something important. They were using statistical analysis for subjects in which they already had first-hand expertise. As I recall, they were also using statistics in areas such as rural pacification, which lends itself a lot more to mathematical modeling than combat operations.

Besides, they were military professionals. As a soldier, Robert S. McNamara was a civilian executive, and so you're right, he did step way outside his area of competence.
Comment by Arrigo Velicogna on August 10, 2009 at 10:16am
the airmobility was vehemntly opposed by the Air force (and until Kennedy the air force was the big player in the defense budget) and it was based on capabilities (serious utility and transport helicopter) still on th drawing board. McNamar accepted and supported the army bet.

Pentomic was flawed (ok not so flawed in theory, but it placed too much burned on battalion level officers and failed in practice) but it was a despeate attempt (and pretty successful) to stave off USAF (primary enemy of US Army) and Ike madness.

McNamara believed strongl in flexible reponse and in the need for conventional deterrance, something the the previous Sec Def were lacking. Tha helped the army to define its role with support from the top.

McNamara problems were in its tendency to micromange stuff outside his competence and to reduce everything to number crunching. But statistical analysis and predictions were the basis of everything in the period. Even the much praised USMC HQ (Greene and Krulak senior) were using satatistical analysis to create strategies (those were intarnal documents not stuff for the DoD).

Still I have to agree with you comment on the "worst problem" also I am wonderng how much he believed the war was unwinnable (considering it was slowly being won in his terms) then or decided it ex ost facto to create an image of desperate crusader (IMHO this is the case and that is the reason beacuse I am no lover of him, he lacks intellectual integrity, but you know for some people that made him an genius or an hero...).
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 10, 2009 at 9:00am
I think that you can look for some measure of integrity in a politician, as being centered on some sort of ideal is what separates a statesman from a mere political operator. Harry Truman was a friend of crooks, especially his old mentor Boss Tom Pendergast, and had some questionable views on race and ethnicity. But he integrated the armed forces and recognized Israeli independence not because it was popular or would have gotten him a few more votes, but in large part because he saw both as essentially right.

Where I have some of my worst problems with McNamara is on his continued involvement with the Vietnam War when he decided that it was unwinnable. As a leader, he had a duty to resign from what his convictions told him was a failed policy that was tearing the nation apart and killing soldiers. Instead he kept his job and his power.

Quantifying the procurement process and adding some additional rationality to it might have been good. Excessively quantifying operations and trying to turn combat into a mathematical exercise certainly counterbalanced that though.

I wonder too if all the reforms that you mention had to have McNamara to succeed. Airmobility had a big time lobby in the Army, going well back into the fifties. Here's a link to the Army's own history of the concept: http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/Airmobility/airmobility-c.... The Army was definitely interested in the latest developments in helicopters and didn't need McNamara to force the UH-1 or CH-47 on them.

Also, the pentatomic scheme was abysmally flawed that I believe any new administration would have scrapped it.
Comment by Arrigo Velicogna on August 10, 2009 at 5:33am
If the west won the cold war was in large part due to the foundation work made by McNamara. He rebuilt the US military after the Ike years were bad policy and bad strategy collpased any form of real deterrance.

And Cold was was made worse by Moscow, I respectfully remind you that it was good old Nikita who built the wall, placed missiles in cuba and become agressived everywhere, and after him the nice duo Breznhev-Gretcko...

Jim also you can't look of integrity in a politician... still sometime "it is the hour of son ofabitche" (not Mine, King's own...).

As Sec Def he did a lot of good thing in peacetime, as Sec Def he mismanaged a war... still his good job on peacetime was key to winning the Cold War and to sop a period when the Russians were becoming more and more adventurists.

He was the F111B man, but he laid the groundwork and supported the M109 program, he supported the A7 corsai and the adoption of the F4 by the Air Force, he defended ROAD who was an enormous improvement over Pentomic, and he supported Airmobility; without MacNamar support no Huey and no Chinook, remember that the faith of the Army in the concpet was criticized from several parties especially beacuse the concept was developped to tak advantege of helicopters still on the drawing boards. Not small accomplishments.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 9, 2009 at 8:07pm
I'm still looking for his integrity, but my microscope is broken.
Comment by Bill Wood on August 9, 2009 at 7:51pm
He made the Cold War worse. I see no merit in his actions.
Comment by Nate on August 9, 2009 at 2:12pm
Thanks Jim.
This needed saying before someone tried to rewrite his legacy into something digestable.
Comment by Arrigo Velicogna on July 18, 2009 at 11:07am
He rebuilt american conventional deterrence after the "new look" and according to Trauschweizer "cold war army" he did a pretty good job. pharaprasing John Compton, awful secretary of war, awesome secretary of defense. While I agree with the bad opinion on his conduct of the vietnam war he did a starling job to create and effettive Office of Secretary of Defense and geraing up the armed forces for the real cold war as opposed to Eisenowher times.

Sadly he was the wrong one to face Vietnam.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on July 18, 2009 at 11:02am
I wonder if anyone has anything really good to say about McNamara. I'm sure his dog loved him.
Comment by David Allen on July 12, 2009 at 6:39pm
Good story about the Edsel. It just goes to show what can happen when people try to use bad science to replace art.

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