Thoughts On McNamara


1. Heroes, Villains and the Rest of Us
2. The Lessons of McNamara
3. The Essence of Choice

1. - Heroes, Villains and the Rest of Us

Last week, I wrote about Obama's annoying habit of inserting himself into other people's problems. I will balance that this week and praise him for his ability to admit his errors, correct himself and move on in the right direction. It is a nuanced approach.

But nuance is risky in public life. We want our heroes, and our villains, to be drawn in clear and stark lines. Grey shading - especially moral sharing - is not wanted. The recent death of Robert McNamara brought this into focus.

McNamara went through a moral journey in relation to his role in the Vietnam War that is unprecedented in modern political life. Over time he turned his unforgiving rationality on himself and what he was doing. He came to believe the war was not simply unwinnable but also that it was wrong. He went from being LBJ's golden boy (he had even been approached to be his running mate) to an exile from mainstream American politics and government.

He spent the remaining years of his life exploring the morality of the war and his role in it. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never retreated into the impunity of power and influence or into simplistic rubrics of good and evil. It was the exemplar of an examined life. This took him out of the black and white and into the grey. Deep into the grey. His death was marked with ambivalence , pointed criticism or outright hostility. That is the price of nuance. - Beta.

2. The Lessons of McNamara

As suggested by my friend's discussion, the passing of Robert Strange McNamara has evoked a very mixed and in some cases very polarized response. He was both a fascinating figure, and one who had a huge impact on history. But as we consider his passing, what lessons are we to draw from his life?

My friend has focused on the nuance reflected in McNamara's public repudiation of his earlier policies, and his moral reflection in later years. Certainly this aspect of McNamara's later life, so poignantly captured in the film "The Fog of War"(see trailer below), led to his being reviled by those on the right who thought that the Vietnam War could have been won, while doing little to appease those on the left who already despised him for his policies in prosecuting the war to begin with.

But in contrast to that nuance, was McMamara's own dedication to quantitative analysis. He is often described as the supreme rationalist, but more specifically he was a systems and organizational analyst, who was supremely confident in the ability to solve complex problems through quantitative analysis. He applied this approach in turning Ford around, addressing the so-called missile gap with the Soviets, developing new limited counter-force nuclear strategies, and then most famously in his approach to the Vietnam War, and finally, to the problems of poverty and underdevelopment as head of the Wold Bank.

It was this devotion to quantitative analysis, which rests on the premise that everything of importance in a problem can be measured, and measured in a way that will lead to inferences that can materially assist in resolving the problem, that often steered him wrong. While these approaches often worked brilliantly in some contexts, like the auto industry, they could be misguided in other circumstances, such as the Vietnam war. Even in his efforts to address the problems of the third world, he developed programs at the World Bank that had pernicious unintended consequences.

In the end, his approach seemed to give validity to the old aphorism that when we cannot measure what is important, we place importance on what can be measured. Yet as my friend has suggested, McNamara was both wise and moral enough to ponder the error of his ways, at first to try to correct the errors, and later to understand the nature of his mistakes. In one famous conversation caught for posterity on White House tapes, not long before he was fired for his increasing doubts about the war, he is heard exhorting Lyndon Johnson to limit the war in Vietnam: “I don’t think we ought to just look ahead to the future and say we’re going to go higher and higher and higher and higher — 600,000; 700,000; whatever it takes.”

"Whatever it takes". Where have we heard that recently? In the end, McNamara came to the conclusion that the war in Vietnam had been deeply immoral, but he also came to understand some of the reasons for the U.S. failure in the war - "a failure to understand the enemy, a failure to see the limits of high-tech weapons, a failure to tell the truth to the American people, and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat of communism" (NY Times). Not things amenable to measurement. But can we imagine Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, the architects of another war, under the banner of "whatever it takes", coming to such conclusions, far less sharing them with the world as McNamara did? For all his faults, the nuance of his later understanding, guilt, and confession demonstrated a degree of integrity and courage. - Gamma.

3. The Essence of Choice

"In the end, his approach seemed to give validity to the old aphorism that when we cannot measure what is important, we place importance on what can be measured"

I wonder if this does not get at the essence of the ambivalence. The essence of any strategic choice is simply deciding that you are going to do one thing as opposed to another thing (or other things). In this way choosing to do something is also choosing not to do something else. Relying on data to drive that choice is smart. Thinking that the data alone will ensure you make the right choice is reckless, or at least willfully blind.

So what does one rely on to fill the gap? The problem for those who want to rely on objective and observable phenomenon is that these gaps are best filled by subjective guesswork informed by instinct, gut feeling, spidey-sense, ethics and morality. Aren't those the best choices after all? The ones that require a leap of faith in one's own ability to make good choices when faced with inevitable gaps in the data. We can, as Malcolm Gladwell has tried (and failed, I think) in Blink, to characterise this as rapidfire cognitive process, or, as Roger Martin has, a little more successfully, described in the Opposable Mind, consider it a form of multi-dimensional and non-linear problem-solving, but however we (thin) slice it, there is a difference between the way we make a good choice and the way we make a bad choice.

So, maybe that is what I am missing in the ambivalence and the hostility. It might not be a reaction to nuance at all, but, rather, to the simple fact that Robert Strange McNamara failed to inject any morality into his choices during the conduct of the war. And in that respect, how is he any different from Rumsfeld and Cheney? And what use are a few tears after the fact? - Beta.



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