July 06, 2009

Robert Strange McNamara

It was Henry Ford II who reportedly said of Robert McNamara: "In our business, we are lucky if we make the right decision 51% of the time. What I have noticed about Bob McNamara is that he makes an awful lot of right decisions." And yet, of course, he also made some profoundly wrong ones too, most notably, with the gross misadventure of Vietnam. The below video captures some of the spirit of the man, both the good and the bad, if still a stubborn doggedness and recalcitrance, also greater appreciation of historical nuance and moral ambiguity, certainly at least in his older, more reflective years.

Regardless of history's verdict of him, which doubtless will be almost wholly about Vietnam, and thus mostly negative, this was nonethless a sharply penetrating, urbane man, and importantly one who could admit a mistake, unlike say, the unreflective (and far less elegant) Donald Rumsfeld, the two having not infrequently been compared to each other.

As McNamara said in Errol Morris's excellent documentary "The Fog of War" (from which I believe the above video is excerpted):

We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”

"War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

This last is probably what haunted him the most to his dying day.

NB: McNamara actually misquotes T.S. Eliot at the end of the excerpted YouTube. The relevant portion is from Little Gidding (No. 4 of 'Four Quartets'), namely:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

McNamara mixes the placement of "exploration" and "exploring" (and has the second line erroneously as "and at the end of our exploration"), while also substituting "we will return to" for the original "will be to arrive". The meaning is essentially the same, if McNamara's erroneously tweaked third line impacts the emphasis some, as "we will return to" evokes a sense of volitional action (a tad too certain, even cocksure?), while "will be to arrive" speaks more to preordained fate exerting its will (more deferential?). Arguably too, there is a slightly more pessimistic bent to 'returning' to the same place, rather than a sense of 'arriving' anew. Given the arc of his life, perhaps neither variation is surprising, albeit somewhat incongruous, if nonetheless helpfully evocative of the man's contradictions.


Posted by Gregory at July 6, 2009 11:01 PM
Comments

Yes, he could admit a mistake. Good for him. Unfortunately he waited until the damage was done and millions were dead to admit that mistake. I must say, I felt for him after watching The Fog of War. If he made a mistake while at Ford, he could have cost the company millions. Making a mistake as Secretary of Defense was one helluva lot more costly. I would have a lot more respect for McNamara if he had admitted his mistake while it still would have made a difference in Vietnam.

Posted by: Gus at July 7, 2009 06:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

He was one of the worst government officials ever to set foot in Washington. He made more mistakes that cost more lives than any other man I can think of in American history for no gain.

His policies tore the US apart and radicalized the country. In short I can't imagine a greater failure, except for Obama.

Posted by: Thomas Jackson at July 19, 2009 02:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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