Goodnight Saigon

July 10, 2009

Obit McNamara

Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, died this week at 93.

When McNamara served as the “architect” for the Vietnam War as secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, he was considered one of Kennedy’s “best and brightest.” He let it be known that he had all the answers, and that those who didn’t agree with him were simply not as well informed as he was.

After being forced to resign in 1968, McNamara refused to discuss the Vietnam War until his 1995 book In Retrospect, was published. In that controversial book, he acknowledged that he “made mistakes” in Vietnam, but reminded the readers that every other top official in Washington did as well. In the book as well as in Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning 2003 documentary The Fog of War, McNamara argued that he based his policies on incorrect information supplied by the military.

In the Morris film, which I highly recommend, he reflected on the decisions he made, from World War II through Vietnam, and the consequences of those decisions.

Those decisions would prove him to be more of an accountant than a strategist or visionary. It is a painful irony that the man who preached the gospel of cost-effectiveness for the nuts and bolts of military hardware failed to realize soon enough that the Vietnam police action would become the least effective and most costly military venture in American history, spending on the Vietnam War escalated from $1 billion to over $20 billion between 1965 and 1967. Then there were the nearly 60,000 dead Americans who never came home.

He deliberately misled President Johnson about the Gulf of Tonkin crisis in 1964. He also cost the lives of three million Vietnamese military and civilians through the military action and contamination from Agent Orange.

McNamara spent his later years as a vocal critic of nuclear proliferation and doing other planing and sanding work on his legacy.

His trademarks were his rimless glasses and slicked down hair and his reliance on quantitative analysis to reach conclusions.

McNamara is the best example of how intelligence alone will never guarantee success. The dangers that come from expecting victory through supreme competence may be lessons that Obama himself will want to study.

One of McNamara’s own painfully learned lessons was not to know yourself, or even to know the group you are leading; in his own words, the main thing is to be smart enough understand and to empathize with your enemy.

“Perhaps rationality isn’t enough,” McNamara says in one of Morris’ most memorable scenes from the film.

Indeed.

Rest in peace.

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