Robert McNamara died earlier today. In 2004, I used the movie The Fog of War to look at the larger meaning of McNamara’s life. Here’s my article:
McNamara as War Manager
Although he was only two years old at the time, Robert McNamara claims he can still remember the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in 1918 when the end of the First World War was announced. The cheering was premature. President Woodrow Wilson had promised a “war to end all wars” but in fact his country would never get far from the shadows of armed conflict. For many crucial years in the subsequent decades, McNamara would be intensely involved in his country’s war-making decisions. As Errol Morris makes clear in his new documentary The Fog of War, McNamara has participated in a large sweep of modern U.S. history.
More than any other person, McNamara embodies the triumph of modern management techniques in modern society, including in military affairs. In McNamara’s career we see both the promise and perils of “managerialism” – the belief that trained technical experts are the folks who are best equipped to govern over large organizations, be it a corporation, a university, a charitable agency, or an army.
Born to a middling Scotch-Irish family in San Francisco in 1916, McNamara was from an early age a striver and a go-getter. During the anxious 1930s, McNamara majored in business management, which was then a young and confident academic discipline that hoped to bring intellectual order to a capitalist system wracked by economic uncertainty. McNamara found his lifelong faith in the doctrine of efficiency and scientific management, as preached by business school avatars like F.W. Taylor and Alfred P. Sloan.
Management, McNamara once declared, is “the most creative of all arts, for its medium is human talent itself.” Initially, McNamara spread the gospel of management as an academic at the Harvard Business School but as a soldier he soon found practical applications for his ideas.
During World War II, McNamara served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. Under the command of General Curtis LeMay, McNamara used statistical methods to maximize the damage done by firebombing more than 60 Japanese cities. In retrospect, the firebombing was both morally and militarily dubious: its major impact seems to have been to firm up the nationalist resolve of the Japanese population, who continued to support the war until the sheer horror of atomic warfare crumbled their government’s will-power.
After the war, McNamara and the other Harvard “whiz kids” basked in the glory of their wartime exploits. American corporations now wanted to harness the steely computational mastery that McNamara possessed. In 1946, he was hired by the Ford Motor Company, a giant corporation that was still run like an overgrown family firm. McNamara systematized the management of Ford, giving power to marketing and administrative experts. Under his re-shaping, Ford came to more closely resemble General Motors, then seen as the pinnacle of the modern corporation. For his efforts, McNamara was rewarded in 1960 by being made the first President of the company who had no kinship ties with the Ford family.
Shortly thereafter, President Kennedy recruited McNamara to become the Secretary of Defense. During his controversial tenure from 1961 to 1968, McNamara oversaw the American intervention into Vietnam (he once said he was proud that people were calling it “McNamara’s war”). A devil with busy hands, McNamara did much else as well. In nuclear matters, he helped instigate the policy of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), which was based on the notion that human survival is best guaranteed if both sides have the capability of unleashing the apocalypse. Influenced by the academic discipline of game theory, the aptly-named MAD policy always seemed analytically sound except for the fact that it didn’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or outbursts of irrationality by leaders. Few were comforted at the idea that the fate of life on earth depended on a MAD policy.
McNamara also forcefully reorganized the military by bringing it under the control of civilian management. As conservative writer James Burnham noted in a 1966 article in National Review, McNamara’s goal was to “make the defense establishment as closely as possible an integral element of our advanced managerial economy. The hotly debated hallmarks of the McNamara regime – program definition, cost-efficiency, systems analysis, centralized procurement, computerized inventory control, ultra-speed internal communications, etc – are the routine methods of modern management as it operates in our great corporations.”
Burnham’s article was in fact a rare journalistic celebration of McNamara, often attacked in those years for bringing unwanted change to the military. But Burnham was the appropriate writer to pen a paean to McNamara. In 1941, Burnham had published a book called The Managerial Revolution, which argued that traditional family oriented capitalism (for example, the Ford company in its early years) was being replaced by the rule of a new elite defined by its technical expertise. McNamara’s entire career was “the Managerial Revolution” in action.
Yet in his prosecution of the Vietnam War, we see the limits of using managerial techniques in human affairs. In waging “McNamara’s war” the United States had an arsenal of unrivalled technical sophistication. “The United States attempted to exploit its technological superiority to cope with the peculiar problems of a guerrilla war,” the historian George Herring notes. “To locate an ever-elusive enemy, the military used small, portable radar units and ‘people sniffers’ that picked up the odor of human urine. IBM 400 computers were programmed to predict likely times and places of enemy attacks. Herbicides were used on a wide scale and with devastating ecological consequences to deprive the guerrillas of natural cover.”
However, all these gizmos and high tech wonders ultimately failed and for one simple reason. While McNamara and his fellow war-planners were masters of technology, they didn’t understand human nature. McNamara saw the Vietnam War through the lens of the Cold War, as a battle between communism and capitalism. Yet for many of the Vietnamese, it was in fact a nationalist war to gain independence for their country.
Because North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh had fought valiantly against the imperial rule of the Japanese and French, he had impeccable nationalist credentials. The sorry crew of South Vietnamese leaders that the U.S. propped up, by contrast, looked like puppets, which is what they largely were. Furthermore, by wrecking ecological devastation on the country, the U.S. lost whatever support they might have had with the Vietnamese peasants, for whom the land was the sacred source of existence.
McNamara didn’t understand his own soldiers any better than he understood the Vietnamese. Ordinary troops, many of them conscripted from the ghettos and barrios of America, hated being the foot soldiers of an ill-conceived imperialist adventure. The morale of the American army collapsed as drug use and fragging (the killing of officers) became common. McNamara’s computers couldn’t measure such intangibles as esprit de corps.
The top-down management style of modern business doesn’t really lend itself to developing cultural empathy. McNamara would have better off if he had listened to some historians, psychologists, and anthropologists rather than relying a horde of computer programmers.
McNamara was once described as “an IBM machine with legs.” Early on in Morris’s documentary, there does seem to be something mechanical about McNamara. He lists off dates and numbers with ease but becomes choked when discussing his private life. With his shiny domed head, he even looks like a robot’s idea of a sexy stud. R2D2 or the HAL 9000 could easily fall in love with McNamara
Yet in a little less than two hours, Morris manages to humanize this supposed machine man. To his credit, McNamara is deeply reflective about his life and tries, with only partial success, to find the root causes of his mistakes. By contrast, many who have done deeds as bad or worse (such as Henry Kissinger) show no such moral courage.
More to the point, the lessons that McNamara tries to draw from his life have real urgency. In Iraq today, we see once again an American military led by arrogant technocrats who have little feeling for foreign cultures. Just as McNamara couldn’t have imagined that the Vietnamese were motivated by patriotism, Donald Rumsfeld is fecklessly stirring up the hornet’s nest of Arab nationalism. While Americans are often proud patriots, they have a hard time understanding that other peoples also have a sense of national self-worth.
The “Managerial Revolution” that brought McNamara to power has largely fizzled out. Few now believe that technocrats should automatically be trusted to bring efficiency and order to human affairs. Yet by default managers still have a lot of power, since we haven’t figured out how to replace the corporate military-industrial state with a more egalitarian system. Since managers still rule over us, all we can do is watch them carefully and try to hold them accountable for their misdeeds. That is perhaps the best lesson to take from McNamara’s life.