Sunday Tangent: Stray thoughts on Rbt. McNamara’s timely passing


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Hi Blog. As a tangent this Sunday, I thought I’d say a few words on the timely passing (hell, he was 93, and outlived most of his compatriots of this generation) of former US Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara — one of the most promising boffins of the 20th Century, and the so-called primary architect of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Disclaimers first: I of course did not know McNamara. I am not a scholar of his life, his generation, or his books (although I do have a Bachelor’s in Government from Cornell, where I was once studying to be a Kremlinologist mere months before Gorbachev came along and rendered that science obsolete). I did not grow up in the generation that called the war “McNamara’s War” (after all, born in January 1965 I missed the Baby Boomer Generation by 13 days). I do not have the bred hatred of him or what he stands for carried forth by millions of protesters (I consider Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, Rumsfeld, and Cheney to be far worse people than McNamara).

But I do see McNamara as a person who was too smart for his own good. As one of the “Golden Boys” within the Kennedy Administration Intelligentsia (carried on through to the end of Johnson in 1968), here was a man seen as able to take on all of the world’s problems with a slide rule and a command of statistics. As long has he had enough information, I believe (and so did many others believe) that he thought he could solve anything.

But even he, as his books and interviews revealed, realized that that wasn’t good enough. He put it down to the incredibly complicated calculus (or “Fog”, to use his term) of War that nobody could figure out (even though people far less bright than he could figure it out — Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Patton, Petraeus, Eisenhower –even his successor Clark Clifford to some degree managed to). So he spent the second half of his life disinterring the past, going over and over the data until he arrived at “Eleven Lessons” that he hoped people would listen and take to heart, so that the same mistakes wouldn’t be made yet again.

I laud that sentiment, in the sense that one must learn to avoid repeats. And I’m sure he would make the case that war in the Cold War Era and Nuclear Age offered unprecedented challenges (and I would agree). But the funny thing is, I sense through listening to him speak, give presentations, and answer questions, that he really wasn’t, despite his best efforts, listening to people. I believe that his fatal shortcoming was that he, for all his protestations, believed that nobody else had quite thought about things as deeply as he had, or had been exposed to as much information as he had, or shared the background he had. He was prone to interrupting questions with answers (even though the question was proceeding in a different direction than he was anticipating), and spent so much time anticipating and preempting others that he shut himself off to absolutely new viewpoints (such as the fact that the Vietnamese were simply not going to fight in ways that people, least of all the astoundingly culturally-ignorant American soldiers, were able to anticipate). He locked himself and his perceptions so far into the Bunker Mentality of the Superpower Nuclear and Space Race for years that he was simply unable to extricate himself from that mindset. I believe he brainwashed himself not into infallibility or invulnerability, but into the belief that the Americans were going to get their way, or some semblance of it, one way or another simply because they were so powerful.

This is a textbook definition of hubris. And it was McNamara’s undoing.

The reason why I don’t lump McNamara in with other felons of his generation (again, for example Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, Rumsfeld, and Cheney) because he was trying to go back and take issue with himself. Nixon, as the Frost Interviews demonstrated, still believed he was right, however “sorry” he said he was. Kissinger has written whole books justifying himself, and wants everyone to believe he’s still a credible source and not a war criminal. H, R & C are so self-assured and blindly hubristic they kept seeking office (they wanted to be entrusted with power yet again?!), without much of an urge to explain themselves. And they managed it, too, sadly.

McNamara tried to explain himself, run some self-diagnostics, show some contrition, and admit mistakes. That is very praiseworthy. He also created a written record of the era (the Pentagon Papers) so that others could look at the era more objectively (an impulse the Bush II Admin, full of Nixon and Ford Admin veterans, actively worked against; they learned exactly the opposite lessons from Watergate). We need more impulses like that, so that, again, we can learn from history.

Final word: McNamara still comes off in his interviews as disingenuous, and even a little contradictory at times. He has that hint of Nixon’s attitude of being “sorry, but still right”. Consider this: His concept of apologies, as expressed in a 1995 NPR interview with Terry Gross, when asked about his recently-published book:

MCNAMARA: Some people have used ‘redemption’ and ‘apology’ [regarding my book]. Forget ‘redemption’ and ‘apology’. I’d say that those of us, assuming for a minute that I’m correct — as I say in the preface I believe that it was an error, a tragic error — assume for a minute that my judgment is correct — then I think that we owe an explanation. To future generations. Of what happened, and how to avoid that in the future. That’s the purpose of the book.

TERRY GROSS: To explain.

MCNAMARA: To explain, and more than explain, to draw lessons, and suggest how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

TERRY GROSS: To you think an apology is appropriate?

MCNAMARA: Well, if you want me to apologize, of course. But that’s not the issue. The issue isn’t apology. You don’t, I’ll call it ‘correct a wrong’ by apologizing. You can correct a wrong only if you understand how it occurred, and take steps to ensure it won’t happen again.

And afterwards I’m here shaking my head at how intelligent, yet how inept, this comes off. Sure, the lessons are what’s important. But when you get down to the basic human impulses of making up for wrongs, it’s not just a matter of learning your lesson. You MUST ALSO APOLOGIZE. From your heart. Because you want to. Not because others want you to — because that sounds worse than disingenuous — it’s insincere, and has exactly the opposite of a healing effect. You are responsible for the deaths of millions. If you are going to show any contrition at all, do it properly.

But a person as dry and trained to be intelligent as McNamara, who has long since been desiccated of the milk of human kindness, will always fall short of actually doing what he intends to do — convince people at the gut level that doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons is still the wrong thing. He will always fall short of his historical potential as a great man offering lessons because of that.

Again, McNamara deserves to go down in history as the man who was too smart for his own good. What a waste. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

14 comments on “Sunday Tangent: Stray thoughts on Rbt. McNamara’s timely passing

  • Well done, Debito. McNamara was also apparently too smart for the millions of Vietnamese, hundreds of thousands of Japanese, and tens of thousands of Americans who, among others, died under his blind and arrogant leadership. Despite his death, he blazed the trail for the spit-on-the-world-and-smirk leaders that you name in parentheses. So, while it is true that he was commendable to the degree that he acknowledged his wrongdoing — and, yes, he only ever did so in a largely ambiguous but ultimately self-justifying manner — his legacy has not left us. Our war criminals in office continue to prosper and lead the lives of celebrities after their political careers are officially over. McNamara essentially admitted at one point that he had acted as a war criminal. That should give us pause when considering the likelihood that figures such as Cheney and Rumsfeld will ever get their due in a court of law. The proverbial snowball’s chance in Crawford at once comes to mind.

  • C.B.Liddell says:

    The first lesson is not to draw lessons, never mind eleven of them as McNamara apparently did. The key to not making stupid mistakes is to consult self-interest and common sense through the medium of fluid thought.

    Over-educated people tend to be more rigid and dogmatic than normal people because they are essentially dealing with information overload. This is the peculiar stupidity of the overeducated.

  • Interesting who you consider as “felons”. Nixon, for example, was a twice elected president (the second time in one of the greatest landslide election victories of the 20th century), restarted diplomatic relations with China and oversaw the end of the Vietnam war. Kissinger? Architect of Middle East peace processes, Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Haig? A war hero with multiple decorations for bravery on the field of battle (2 Silver Stars, Bronze Star, DSC, etc), supreme commander of NATO forces. And so on.

    You really should be careful about who you slander with the label of “felon”.

    — And you ought to look up the definition and legal use of “slander”.

  • Well, after my behavior in h-town, i guess I’ll see him in hell. I’ll be sure to give him an eternal tour of our peace museum. Again and again again again and…

  • The difference between McNamara and Nixon/Kissinger/Haig is that McNamara realized that he was wrong, that the end did not justify the means, and that he had wrought great evil upon the world with the best of intentions.

    Not as good as Dean, who recognized the cancer upon the presidency early enough to turn state’s evidence and thereby bring them down … but at least McNamara possessed enough self-awareness to devote the latter years of his life to apologizing for his mistakes.

    Now contrast with the major policymakers in the Bush (II) White House, who cut their teeth in politics while working for the Nixon Administration …

  • Yes, let’s pick at nits about the legal definition of libel vs. slander.

    I find your lumping of Haig in with Nixon and Kissinger interesting as well. Other than his famous “I’m in charge here” comment (note that the question was not who’s next in line if Regan dies and noone knew where the VP was at the time – it was who’s currently running things), being an ultra ultra right winger, and being one of the major forces behind Nixon’s pardon (which Ford is ultimately responsible for)?

    Nixon – sad that a paranoid anti-semite’s legacy of good (and he did do some amazing things) is tarnished by that whole Watergate thing. Also interesting to see how his presidency has been rewritten after his death in textbooks vs. how it was written back when we were in school.

    Kissinger – tough call. Brilliant fellow. Made some poor choices in terms of allowing others to exercise their right to democracy when it didn’t agree with the US’s interests. Or are you talking about his involvement as an unofficial adviser to GWB on Iraq?

    Cheney? Please elaborate.

    Rumsfeld – total agreement – made the exact same mistakes McNamara did in thinking he knew how to run the war better than the commanders in the field (and with no military experience of his own). Knowingly put people in harms way without proper equipment. etc. etc. etc.

  • “where I was once studying to be a Kremlinologist”

    Hmmm, that’s an interesting Debito factoid I never knew. What kind of career did you foresee for yourself in that field?

    — Something in the government. It was something I found interesting at the time. Nuclear War politics, I can speak from experience, has a mind-warping effect, however. Learned my own lessons, got out of it.

  • I have to agree with McNamara’s sentiment (it seems)
    that apologies are meaningless, reflection and analysis of the failure,
    being open and sharing the lessons so that others can learn from our mistakes
    is the far more valuable thing.

    I would think that those of us in Japan would especially appreciate this.

    The corrupt shacho who stole from/defrauded/poisined/killed through negligence etc.
    who just goes on TV and bows before the camera…well, who can know which of them
    truly feel sorry? Especially if they “resign” but maintain some well-paid puppetmaster position or even do amakudari, or just early retirement with a fat pension?
    If he only apolgizes, and takes no action to really correct mistakes. It is totally useless.
    More people will die from the same mistake at some future date, and another shacho will bow before the cameras again. That is not a solution.

    But when that same shacho orders a full, transparent investigation, makes changes to the company, fires responsible employees and resigns himself..then we know that maybe he truly DOES feel AND ACT ON some sense of responsiblity.

    Deeds are far more important than words IMHO

    — An apology is also a deed. It all depends on the sincerity. I believe McNamara couldn’t make one sincerely enough either quantitatively or qualitatively. How can you scientifically prove sincerity, after all?

    I agree, you need deeds more than just words. But Mac was psychologically incapable of making an apology into a deed. This is one way in which education dessicates, as I argued above.

  • Jerry,

    Kissinger – tough call. Brilliant fellow. Made some poor choices in terms of allowing others to exercise their right to democracy when it didn’t agree with the US’s interests.

    Could you elaborate?

  • E.P.

    Particularly his support (as Secretary of State) of a military coup in Chile led by Pinochet overthrowing the elected socialist government. And his support of a later Argentinian coup with the same result (his statement to military leaders was “we want you to succeed”). Or his opposition of the carnation revolution in Portugal. Or allowing Operation Condor to set up an office in Miami (how much support they got from the US State Dept. is something I’ve never really looked into). But I also think that everything he did he did out what he viewed as the US’s best interest rather than some “evil” motive.

    Now, I recognize that, from a policy standpoint it is far easier for the USA to deal with a country that is under a strong single point of control. But that’s why we liked Pakistan under Musharraf so much more than under a democratically elected government. Democracies (or voter elected governments of any kind) have this nasty problem of being hard to deal with because if you piss enough of your people off you don’t have power anymore. Musharraf got things done.

    Look at the difference between China and India – both have billions of people. In China if you need a road or a new rail line you tell the people to move (or move them) and build the road/rail line. In India you spend 30 years trying to buy the land, get the people to move, dealing with the squatters who move in and claim they’ve lived there the whole time, and you still don’t get a road/rail line built.

    Kissinger also did some amazing things. His ability to get groups who want to kill each other passionately to work together towards ending conflict should never be understated. But some of the things he did in an official capacity because he viewed it as in the US’s best interest at the time… well I guess that’s the value of hindsight.

  • @Colin, I think Hannah Arendt has a lot to say to this phenomenon– suggesting imagination and conversation with other people as what is necessary for avoiding these very kinds of catastrophes. I wrote this last year about Arendt (below) and here too I am not sure if it is information overload as it is an over-dependence on information at the expense of an engaged vision with reality. Basically, I completely agree with Debito. Great Post!

  • McNamara’s decisions during the Vietnam War as the secretary of defense basically validate the positon that non-military men should not be making military decisions. Don’t really think you can treat the armed services as some kind of corporate accounting department.

  • Ah – there seems to have been a bit of wire-crossing! When you wrote:

    Made some poor choices in terms of allowing others to exercise their right to democracy when it didn’t agree with the US’s interests.

    I read that to mean that you thought there were a few nations where he should have intervened, a la Chile.

    On the subject of McNamara – I’m not sure how smart he actually was at the time – he also made some significant mess-ups in the field of procurement: the M16 Rifle, F-111, and the ‘Total Procurement Package’ that he rolled out with the C-5 transport – which almost sunk Lockheed.

    So: Not so good with geopolitical decisions, defense decisions, and procurement decisions. Seeing as he came from industry those last two are pretty unforgivable.

    Perhaps he was ‘IQ smart’.

  • Economist’s Obit on Mac. I’m pleased to see they share my view (even use similar words, like “boffin”) of him as a numbers and quantification junkie. They don’t delve enough into his responsibility, however, or why he came up so short-sighted in the end. Debito

    Robert McNamara
    Jul 9th 2009
    From The Economist print edition

    Robert McNamara, systems analyst and defence secretary, died on July 6th, aged 93

    QUANTIFICATION was a word Robert McNamara loved. Numbers could express almost any human activity. Well, perhaps not beauty, honour, love. But certainly the rigours of a youthful trip to sea (19 bed-bug bites on one leg), and the pleasure of climbing Mount Whitney, all 14,495 feet. Five or six bullet points, reinforced when you saw him with vigorous hand-chops, summed up any argument. There were four McNamara steps to changing the thinking of any organisation, including the Pentagon: state an objective, work out how to get there, cost out everything, systematically monitor progress against the plan. There were 11 lessons to be learned from the war in Vietnam, but most of them occurred to him too late.

    Things you could count, he said, you ought to count. At the Ford Motor Company, where he was one of the ten “Whiz Kids” brought in in 1946 to shake things up, all the components of each new Chevy (made by GM) would be laid out on a table to inspect. This was not cheating, but competitive evaluation. At the Air Force Office of Statistical Control, where he worked in 1943-45, he counted the firebombing sorties made by the B-29s, at what height, with what percentage hits on target (58% of Yokohama, 51% of Tokyo). System and data together helped win that war. In the Pentagon in 1965, again by applying metrics—targets hit, captives taken, weapons seized, the enemy’s body-count—he could tell with equal certainty that America was losing.

    The South Vietnamese, America’s allies, were cavalier with numbers. Hence his frustration with them. The enemy Vietcong made each person count. After saturation American bombing in 1965, Mr McNamara found they were still getting 200 tons of supplies a day along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and had scattered the country with a secret stash of oil in hundreds of 55-gallon drums. The importance of tiny peasant efforts to the health of a nation struck him again when, from 1968-81, he headed the World Bank, shifting its focus and its money to rural development.

    He saw himself as an “enlightened rationalist”, and looked the part, with his oiled hair and boffin’s glasses and strict attention to time. If business had not called, in the shape of Henry Ford, and if public service had not called later, with John Kennedy asking him to take first Treasury and then Defence, he might have stayed at Harvard teaching economics. Not long after joining Kennedy’s White House, he drew the president a little graph of his authority: power on the vertical axis, his putative two terms on the horizontal, with effectiveness a declining line between them. Sadly, his horizontal axis proved too long.

    It was often his fate to be saddled with bad numbers. At Ford it was the Edsel, a clunker-car with contrasting tail-fins and unlovely squarish styling, which sold only 68,045 in 1958, its first year, and 47,496 in its second, until he killed it in favour of the smaller, cheaper Falcon. At the Pentagon, where he arrived in 1961 with 99 topics for evaluation, he found a budget of $55 billion that had to be trimmed by bringing in systems analysis and five-year plans. He forced cuts in bases and procurement on the outraged joint chiefs, only to find some money mysteriously restored again.

    But the worst numbers appeared from the mid-1960s, in a series of ever-increasing demands from General William Westmoreland in Vietnam: a force of 210,000 by the end of 1965, 325,000 by July 1966, 410,000 by that December. Vietcong numbers smoothly kept pace, despite losses estimated at 60,000 a year. Figures for Americans killed in action ran at 400-500 a month, ever upwards. Mr McNamara, ordered to win the war and clinging to his statistical strategy of attrition, approved the troop increases. But his company-man efficiency was often rattled. At cabinet meetings, especially with the “rough”, Lyndon Johnson (far left), he would nervously hitch up his trousers, sigh, bury his head in his hands. It was all unravelling. When in 1968 “Westy” asked for 200,000 more men, he left. He had once been happy to take responsibility for “McNamara’s war”. But as he admitted later, in penitent memoirs and interviews, he had not understood the variables of war itself.

    The limits of reason
    At the height of the conflict, he was called a baby-burner. His son marched against him. Jackie Kennedy once pummelled his chest with her fists, crying at him to “stop the slaughter”. All this was difficult. He was an instinctive liberal, driving a battered Ford, living in university suburbs, where his recommended book for the reading group was Camus’s “L’Etranger”. Warmongering was not in his nature.

    He was haunted by the thought that amid all the objective-setting and evaluating, the careful counting and the cost-benefit analysis, stood ordinary human beings. They behaved unpredictably. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which he had lived through at cabinet level, “Kennedy was rational. Khrushchev was rational. Castro was rational.” Yet between them they had pushed the world to the brink. Rationality, he concluded, “will not save us.” Perhaps what would were the little quirks that had made him love John Kennedy: the president’s sudden capacity to be empathetic, surprised, intuitive, and ready to jettison his most confident calculations.


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