Blame Robert McNamara?

 

Our wedding anniversary (number 45 this weekend) is the same date as the birthday of Robert McNamara, which I continue to find annoying. McNamara was the paradigm of almost all that has become wrong with America.

McNamara was extremely intelligent.  He excelled at UC Berkeley and impressed at Harvard where he got an MBA. Before Harvard, he was an Army number cruncher in WWII, analyzing bombing efficiency. (I thought of him when watching AppleTV’s Masters of the Air as the airmen complained about being sent on virtual suicide missions that some planner thought vital.)

After the war, he was hired to bring modern managerial methods to Ford.  He quickly rose to the top and pushed the development of the Ford Falcon.  In his marvelous book The Reckoning (a parallel history of Ford and Nissan), David Halberstam excoriates McNamara for pushing a boring, simplified car model he believed the working man was supposed to want.  Whether that is what the consumer actually wanted did not matter.  Halberstam contrasted that with McNamara’s successor Lee Iacocca, who green-lighted the Ford Mustang, one of the most successful, popular model lines ever made.  Iacocca knew that the working man wanted his new car (purchased maybe once every few years at most) to be special.  His wife wanted to be seen by the neighbors when they drove it home.  Those kinds of things did not have a column on McNamara’s spreadsheets.

As the Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara led the entry into the Vietnam War with the same overriding managerial approach—resource allocation as a strategy.  It is perhaps not surprising that within that planning environment, Westmoreland’s strategy was seemingly based entirely on the body count metric rather than a more comprehensive view of how to achieve victory.  McNamara’s Pentagon also regarded the aerial dogfight as an anachronism.  Ideally, fighter aircraft would deliver ordinance from great distances as directed from the ground.  The pilot was to be just a delivery driver.  For the first time since the beginning of WWI, American fighter pilots had a losing record in aerial combat.  Again, much of military culture, the intangibles of leadership, and the nature of combat did not have a column on the spreadsheet.

McNamara went on to head the World Bank where he implemented population control policies as the core anti-poverty methodology instead of an emphasis on large-scale industrialization.  The possibility that high birth rates are a response to infant mortality and poverty rather than a cause did not find its way into the calculus. Incentives, human nature, culture, and history are unquantifiable annoyances.  McNamara would have been a Davos man.

McNamara’s career presaged the current prevailing sensibilities of modern governance: open hostility to consumer choice, the military as a bureaucratic arm, people as a quantified category rather than as people, and all acted upon with a thinly veiled arrogance and entitlement undiminished by demonstrable deficits of intellect and virtue or the complete absence of policy success.

To be fair, McNamara did introduce genuine efficiencies and his counsel during the Cuban Missile Crisis was sound.  He was a highly capable, fundamentally decent guy. The problem is that his methodology seems at all times to have been accompanied by a weirdly sterile, almost anti-human filter opposed to the reality of incentives, human nature, and thus human dignity.

Planning is valuable and indispensable but not if it comes at the price of losing the ability to deal with inevitable uncertainties and complexities and the necessity of human virtues.  All successful Plan Bs are born of the virtue of humility.

The modern administrative state is a pale imitation of McNamara’s — devoid of his actual talents, yet possessing an even more perverse anti-human, anti-normal sensibility.  His generation of “whiz kids” were demonstrably smart, capable, and well-educated, unlike their current successors.  The modern presumption that by deferring to the managerial class we will be led by the “best and brightest” has devolved into a vicious entitlement mentality on the part of a huge demographic hopelessly in debt to acquire credentials of dubious value.  Because the solution would require a massive re-sorting and a virtual mass purge, even those within the class who recognize the problems are restrained in their criticisms, and instead usually call for (pointless) token correctives (Looking at you, RINOs) or are silenced altogether.  The rhetoric of the campaign of 2024 is thus largely devoid of substantive, respectful policy debates by articulate leaders. Instead, it is cast as a battle of raw survival for the managerial class and its wannabes (AKA “our democracy”)  versus the rights, freedom, and well-being of those over who they claim the right to rule.  None of this fits on a spreadsheet anymore, as if it ever did.

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  1. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Hardcover The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War Book

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’ve heard that brilliant people are unbelievably stupid when it comes to practical decision-making. And when it comes to considering the needs of the people–not relevant. I think that many people are reflecting the McNamara approach. We, the people, are not important.

    • #2
  3. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I’ve heard that brilliant people are unbelievably stupid when it comes to practical decision-making. And when it comes to considering the needs of the people–not relevant. I think that many people are reflecting the McNamara approach. We, the people, are not important.

    Stupidity is only dangerous when it is not recognized as stupidity.  A lot that is stupid goes unchallenged because the other big flaw of smart people is that they refuse to admit they have ideologies.  

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    the other big flaw of smart people is that they refuse to admit they have ideologies.  

    Why is that a factor? There isn’t anything inherently wrong with ideologies; what matters is how we practice them.

    • #4
  5. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    the other big flaw of smart people is that they refuse to admit they have ideologies.

    Why is that a factor? There isn’t anything inherently wrong with ideologies; what matters is how we practice them.

    A conservative openly admits to being a conservative.  Liberals claim they are merely vessels of pure truth.  If they spout woke nonsense it must be because of science or virtue.  It could not possibly emerge from an ideological bias or premise.

    • #5
  6. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    I wish I could give this some sort of super duper like.  Perfect.

    • #6
  7. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    Old Bathos:  As the Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara led the entry into the Vietnam war with the same overriding managerial approach—resource allocation as a strategy.  It is perhaps not surprising that within that planning environment, Westmoreland’s strategy was seemingly based entirely on the body count metric rather than a more comprehensive view of how to achieve victory. 

    In my recent post Blue Tiger, the author records multiple instances of the same thing in China before WWII.  The government military officers and governors would vie with each other for the highest body count to obtain promotions.  They weren’t picky about whether the bodies were actual bandits or combatants.  They simply collected heads (literally) to prove their effectiveness.  The survivors welcomed the communists to power.

    This was not a new phenomenon – has been going on throughout history.

    “Kill them all.  God will know his own.”

    • #7
  8. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):
    Westmoreland’s strategy was seemingly based entirely on the body count metric rather than a more comprehensive view of how to achieve victory.

    I remember it well. Many (most?) of the war news stories on tv led off with the day’s body count. No attempts were made to secure land and defend it, just kill a bunch of people and head back to base.

    Being of draft age I really cared about listening to war news, but I never heard any US general or government official articulate any coherent way how this was going to result in anything you could call a win.

    • #8
  9. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):
    This was not a new phenomenon – has been going on throughout history.

    But those Chinese warlords did not contextualize that metric within a self-contained managerial system with graphs.

    Burt Lancaster’s character in Go Tell the Spartans (1978) is bemused by the policy of posting colored symbols in the HQ indicating the relative current danger from enemy action.  No info about where they actually are, no instructions about what to do about it but regular changes in color until the end when it is maximum danger.  In the movie, it was a commentary on management mindsets inappropriately imposed on military realities.

    • #9
  10. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Outstanding post.

    Congrats on 45!!!!   Well done.

    The Reckoning is one of my all-time favorites of non-fiction.

    • #10
  11. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Excellent piece OB.  Looking back on my time in Nam, I can now see how the demand for data was pushed down to the lowest level possible.  On a daily basis, the battalion S3’s were expected to push their data up to the division G3’s whereupon the divisions sent the correlated data up to the Corps and finally to McNamara in Washington.

    No deviations were permitted.  If one link in the chain was slow, they could depend on a visit from the higher headquarters.  For my part, if the 1st, 9th, or 25th Infantry Divisions (or other reporting units) were slow submitting their data then I put on my flak jacket, strapped on my sidearm and headed for the helicopter pad or motor pool to get transportation to the “recalcitrant” unit so I could obtain the precious data.

    I could never understand this method of fighting a war.  I could understand monitoring the number of enemy killed.  But why the tons of rice captured?  More would always be grown.  The number of arms taken?  Many more were coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail every night. We were counting things that made no sense to anyone; except Robert Strange McNamara.

    And, when too many of the “good” pushpins were no longer available to fight the war, then McNamara was ready with a solution; H*ll, we’ll just draft a bunch of idiots to go out into the bush.

    I wrote a piece a few years back describing how I felt as I watched McNamara in The Fog of War.  I could have been wrong but it seemed to me that he was incapable of feeling the pain that he had helped to cause.

    I’ve written it somewhere in the pages of Ricochet but I could not understand why the Joint Chiefs of Staff under LBJ (and McNamara) did not resign and I do not understand why the JCS under Biden did not resign after Abbeygate.

    So, OB, you could very well be right; the ghost of Robert Strange McNamara  still walks in our midst.

    • #11
  12. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):
    Westmoreland’s strategy was seemingly based entirely on the body count metric rather than a more comprehensive view of how to achieve victory.

    I remember it well. Many (most?) of the war news stories on tv led off with the day’s body count. No attempts were made to secure land and defend it, just kill a bunch of people and head back to base.

    Being of draft age I really cared about listening to war news, but I never heard any US general or government official articulate any coherent way how this was going to result in anything you could call a win.

    Ah geez, didn’t you know that we were there to “Win the Hearts and Minds” of the Vietnamese?  

    Seriously, I’ve always believed that Khe Sahn was a metaphor for the entire war.  The Marines squat atop of a mountain, take fire on an hourly basis, and then six months later, Washington decides  that we don’t need the mountain after all

    Today, the historians bicker back and forth on why the U.S. chose this fight and probably the only intelligent thing written about it was by Springsteen:

    I had a brother at Khe Sanh

    Fightin’ off them Viet Cong

    They’re still there, he’s all gone.

    There were actually a lot of Khe Sahn’s and the results were always the same: the communists are still there and 55,000 Americans are all gone.

     

    • #12
  13. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    CACrabtree (View Comment):
    I’ve written it somewhere in the pages of Ricochet but I could not understand why the Joint Chiefs of Staff under LBJ (and McNamara) did not resign and I do not understand why the JCS under Biden did not resign after Abbeygate.

    I think HR McMaster’s book, Dereliction of Duty explains both phenomenon quite well.

    • #13
  14. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    The modern world is often ruled by nonsense numbers.

    • #14
  15. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):
    This was not a new phenomenon – has been going on throughout history.

    But those Chinese warlords did not contextualize that metric within a self-contained managerial system with graphs.

    Burt Lancaster’s character in Go Tell the Spartans (1978) is bemused by the policy of posting colored symbols in the HQ indicating the relative current danger from enemy action. No info about where they actually are, no instructions about what to do about it but regular changes in color until the end when it is maximum danger. In the movie, it was a commentary on management mindsets inappropriately imposed on military realities.

    Under appreciated. 

    • #15
  16. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    CACrabtree (View Comment):
    Seriously, I’ve always believed that Khe Sahn was a metaphor for the entire war.  The Marines squat atop of a mountain, take fire on an hourly basis, and then six months later, Washington decides  that we don’t need the mountain after all

    When I was in the Air Force from 1969-1973, every seriously experienced military man I talked to believed that the Vietnam strategy was nonexistent. It was all just flailing around and they got to where they didn’t want any part of it.

    Every person killed or maimed at Khe Sahn was wasted for nothing.

    • #16
  17. TBA, sometimes known as 'Teebs'. Coolidge
    TBA, sometimes known as 'Teebs'.
    @RobtGilsdorf

    The bloodless should not be in charge of people who are going to end up bleeding. 

    • #17
  18. Quinnie Member
    Quinnie
    @Quinnie

    Excellent post.   Thank you.   

    • #18
  19. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Instugator (View Comment):

    I think HR McMaster’s book, Dereliction of Duty explains both phenomenon quite well.

    From a collection of reviews of McMasters’ book there is this:

    McNamara reluctantly escalated the US commitment by deploying US ground forces to Vietnam, admitting privately that he wanted to send only enough air and land combat power to achieve a stalemate. McNamara, and his boss LBJ, deliberately lied to Congress about the nature of this buildup, understating the totals and the purpose. Despite the inexorable escalation of force by both sides, demanded by the logic of the Vietnam battlefield, there was no intention to win, nor even hope of winning, on the part of the Johnson Administration. In fact, as early as 1965, civilian “strategists” in DOD considered several scenarios to distract international attention in the event they decided to withdraw US forces from Vietnam.

    May McNamara and his minions rot in hell. 55,000 dead for nothing.

    • #19
  20. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    Nice post.  Congrats on #45.  Ours is in a few months.

    • #20
  21. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    Nice post.  Congrats on #45.  Ours is in a few months.

    • #21
  22. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    TBA, sometimes known as 'Teebs… (View Comment):

    The bloodless should not be in charge of people who are going to end up bleeding.

    And you don’t find’em more bloodless than Joe Biden.

    • #22
  23. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Headedwest (View Comment):
    I remember it well. Many (most?) of the war news stories on tv led off with the day’s body count. No attempts were made to secure land and defend it, just kill a bunch of people and head back to base.

    Good point. I always thought it was a little sick that body counts were so central to the news in the mainstream Vietnam War reporting. They oriented themselves to it because that’s what the best and brightest emphasized.

    McNamara was a devotee of technical management, the gift of Robert Deming. Technical management is all about measuring and controlling the variation. The question of its application is, the variation in what? There’s a school of thought that says “pick anything at all that you have control over and can measure, and control the variation in that.” No, really, they think you can control one remotely connected variable to produce the desired output. And it’s a real school of thought – I mean GE teaches that nonsense and calls it Six Sigma.

    This subset of managers is stupid. Robert McNamara was a stupid high functioning sociopath.

    • #23
  24. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    He was a wonk. I finally found the article I wanted. W.R. Meade nails the type here.

    • #24
  25. TBA, sometimes known as 'Teebs'. Coolidge
    TBA, sometimes known as 'Teebs'.
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Barfly (View Comment):

    He was a wonk. I finally found the article I wanted. W.R. Meade nails the type here.

    Claudine Gay handed in her resignation in her grand academic tradition: signing her name to something someone else wrote. 

    • #25
  26. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Headedwest (View Comment):
    I remember it well. Many (most?) of the war news stories on tv led off with the day’s body count. No attempts were made to secure land and defend it, just kill a bunch of people and head back to base.

    Good point. I always thought it was a little sick that body counts were so central to the news in the mainstream Vietnam War reporting. They oriented themselves to it because that’s what the best and brightest emphasized.

    McNamara was a devotee of technical management, the gift of Robert Deming. Technical management is all about measuring and controlling the variation. The question of its application is, the variation in what? There’s a school of thought that says “pick anything at all that you have control over and can measure, and control the variation in that.” No, really, they think you can control one remotely connected variable to produce the desired output. And it’s a real school of thought – I mean GE teaches that nonsense and calls it Six Sigma.

    This subset of managers is stupid. Robert McNamara was a stupid high functioning sociopath.

    Six Sigma is a tool, not a management style.

     

    • #26
  27. John Stanley Coolidge
    John Stanley
    @JohnStanley

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_100,000

    There was also this dangerous program.

     

    • #27
  28. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Headedwest (View Comment):
    I remember it well. Many (most?) of the war news stories on tv led off with the day’s body count. No attempts were made to secure land and defend it, just kill a bunch of people and head back to base.

    Good point. I always thought it was a little sick that body counts were so central to the news in the mainstream Vietnam War reporting. They oriented themselves to it because that’s what the best and brightest emphasized.

    McNamara was a devotee of technical management, the gift of Robert Deming. Technical management is all about measuring and controlling the variation. The question of its application is, the variation in what? There’s a school of thought that says “pick anything at all that you have control over and can measure, and control the variation in that.” No, really, they think you can control one remotely connected variable to produce the desired output. And it’s a real school of thought – I mean GE teaches that nonsense and calls it Six Sigma.

    This subset of managers is stupid. Robert McNamara was a stupid high functioning sociopath.

    Six Sigma is a tool, not a management style.

     

    Somebody better tell the managers that. Actually, tell the managers’ managers. They’re the ones who need their noses rubbed in that to hear that.

    • #28
  29. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    Percival (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Six Sigma is a tool, not a management style.

    Somebody better tell the managers that. Actually, tell the managers’ managers. They’re the ones who need their noses rubbed in that to hear that.

    Oh my gosh, yes.  I worked at a corporation that swallowed it whole hog in the late 80’s – early 90’s. It started as SPC and became TQM.  It meant weak minded senior managers could follow what they treated like a checklist and ignore everything else.  The corporation adopted a slogan (Quality First), printed it everywhere, and now (post merger) is about 5 percent the size it was when it all started. 

    • #29
  30. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Tex929rr (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Six Sigma is a tool, not a management style.

    Somebody better tell the managers that. Actually, tell the managers’ managers. They’re the ones who need their noses rubbed in that to hear that.

    Oh my gosh, yes. I worked at a corporation that swallowed it whole hog in the late 80’s – early 90’s. It started as SPC and became TQM. It meant weak minded senior managers could follow what they treated like a checklist and ignore everything else. The corporation adopted a slogan (Quality First), printed it everywhere, and now (post merger) is about 5 percent the size it was when it all started.

    Clearly it worked because everything that was either (a) not quality output or (b) not part of the evaluation/measurement team was eliminated, including customers who bought all that non-quality stuff. Some serious efficiency there.

    • #30
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