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, 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 Stephen L Parker on July 11, 2009 at 7:34pm
McNamara civilian tenure at ford featured the Edsel. The showed people a book and let them pick the best grill, the best roofline, the best fenders, etc., thinking that would make a superlative car. We all know how that worked out.

For youngsters who've never see a picture of an Edsel, it was ugly.
Comment by David Allen on July 11, 2009 at 6:49am
The McNamara Line, the XM-70, the F-111 as a fighter...his record speaks for itself.
Comment by Arrigo Velicogna on July 9, 2009 at 3:31pm
Speaking of airpower over vietnam the idea of using bombing tyo force some sort of behavior was not bad per se, but McNamara and the other gradualist have sustituted the threat of bombing to a real air campaign, and also consider that the opposition could have answered with air defense. A lot of airpower critics conveniently forgot that until the Air defense system was smashed (it was approaching ineffectiveness at the time of johnson halt, it was unraveled in Linebacker 1 and collpased in Linebacker 2) there was no guarantee to sending the message. McNamara error was not behavioralist, but more technical, discounting the opposition and its capabilities. The problem is that we are replacing Mcnamara determinism with other form of determinism more often than not... in the end it is too enticing...
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on July 9, 2009 at 3:08pm
George F. Will isn't a McNamara fan either:

McNamara's cautionary tale
Comment by Arrigo Velicogna on July 8, 2009 at 3:58pm
Have to agree with Jon Compton; McNamara and Rumsfeld are tow completely different characters and two completely different beast to judge and even the Guilty verdict is not so simple (and no, I am no McNamara lover). He didn't plan or manage the war singlehandendly like Ho chi Min wasn't oblivious to numbers.

McNamar played an important role in developping the role of the SecDef and rationalizing the position. In number crunching was not alone, he was part member, part lead of a trend in vogue back in the time.

I detest him for his less than honest retelling of Vietnam and mistification of facfts, but in the Johnson/Kennedy administration there were worse villains (like Averell Harriman). His greatest error was to have misused airpower thinking it was a political subtle intrument rather than what is, a blut instrument of destruction, that can, in particular instances, used for coercion, but not a coercitive instrument per se. But on that "gradual approach" he was not alone. He was a product of the american academia of the time.

But as Jon said he alone almost collapsed political science.
Comment by Stephen L Parker on July 8, 2009 at 3:46pm
I wish Rummy would join his partner in crime, McNamara, in Forest Lawn. Both were smug, incompetants.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on July 8, 2009 at 3:09pm
As I said, the early returns aren't promising.
Comment by Bill Wood on July 8, 2009 at 3:07pm
And Rumsfeld provided unarmored Humvees, poor troop allocation, and avoided sending body armor out to keep costs down.

Rummy is as guilty as they get.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on July 8, 2009 at 3:05pm
Rumsfield, to be charitable, will be judged by history, and we don't have that perspective yet, just some early, and sometimes pretty damning votes.

McNamara, on the other hand, is a figure from history, and the verdict is guilty.
Comment by Craig French on July 8, 2009 at 3:02pm
This is the guy who told Colt that he wasn't wasting $1.25 per rifle to chrome the barrels of M16's to stop the stuck case problem because it wasn't "cost effective". Afetr all, it wasn't THAT many soldiers and Marine being shot in the face at point blank range while they had cleaning rods down the barrels of their jammed rifles.
Any of you serve in Vietnam? I did, with Bravo Company 1st Batallion 9th Marines. Check out stories about the Hill Fights at Khe Sanh in 1967 or read comments on the M-16 by Major Dick Culver USMC (retired). I wasn't at the Hill Fights, but I know men who were from my compnay and from another unit that was there and which I served with in 1970, that was Echo 2/3. They are one of the companies that lost men because of jammed weapons.
I was in the same AO in 1969 on Operation Utah Mesa, on HIll 861A, one of the hills besides HIlls 861, 881S, and 881N to name the major ones, The same AO that had to be worked over and over again.
I have no respect for McNamara nor Rumsfeld.

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