Robert Strange McNamara is dead.He died peacefully in his sleep, aged 93. He now joins the fifty eight thousand or so American sons, husbands and fathers who died less peacefully as a result of their involvement in the Vietnam war, a war which he so very much dictated the conduct of.
The Vietnam War was the polarising issue in the U.S. (and Australia) in the 1960's, the cultural and political forces that were unleashed as a result of the political and cultural debate on the matter were one of the principle motive forces that powered the cultural change of the 60's. And for what its worth, from my perspective, the cultural changes really started happening about 1965 and ended about ten years later. The America that entered the 60's was a totally different America than the one that emerged from it. In the space of a decade America was transformed from a country that was sure of itself, its sense of destiny and power to an America that seemed totally unsure of itself an powerless, an America as epitomised in the Carter presidency.
What had changed? What had so sapped American potency and might?
The rot was a long time gestating and began to make it appearance well before the 60's, however the old world still tenaciously hung on, hung on at least till the Kennedy Administration came into power, after which the old world was thoroughly swept aside. The Kennedy Administration was to the U.S what the Whitlam Administration was to Australia; transformative. The "Best and Brightest" of a generation gave their services and enthusiasm to the new administration. The hope was that new, young, enthusiastic men with transformative ideas were going to change America and the world into a better place. The hope was misplaced.
Chief amongst these "Best and Brightest" was Robert McNamara. His biography can read at Wikipaedia. The war in Vietnam was known as McNamara's war and rightly so, as he set out to fight it. And there was the problem, he was not a combat commander, he was a business analyst.
Indeed McNamara was one of the first of the new breed of "scientific managers'(currently today's MBA's) who ran things according to key performance indicators. Body counts, tons of bombs dropped, number of acres of forest cleared, etc. Errol Morris's Fog of War manifestly illustrates the point. He instituted corporate management for the military, not only in the orginisation of the American Military but in the conduct of its operations. To put this more bluntly, given the vast resources of the U.S, its superpower military, its total tactical domination of the enemy, the question is why didn't the U.S win the Vietnam war? The U.S lost the war because it was being run by accountants, not soldiers.
McNamara's evil lay in not knowing his limitations. Prior to McNamara, the Secretary of Defence's job was to provide the military with what it needed to get the job done. With McNamara, he was going to tell the military how to fight the war. Indeed in Morris's Fog of War, McNamara frequently refers to himself as a commander and of the strains of command. The problem was that he was not militarily trained. To quote his arch enemy; a good hospital administrator is not necessarily a good brain surgeon. McNamara dabbled in the surgery. He moved beyond his circle of competence. But he did more that just that, he made sure that surgeons operated according to how he wanted them to. If they didn't, they were isolated or fired and new more "compliant" surgeons were employed who were prepared to do their masters bidding.
His lasting legacy was in the transformation of the "culture" of the Pentagon. Yes-men generals and admirals were hired to replace military who were too outmoded in their thinking. He ensured that the president only got the advice that the he felt that the president wanted to hear. He maneuvered to have the Joint Chiefs of Staff politically isolated from the President so that dissenting voices would not heard. A good account of the politics of the time can be read in the book "Dereliction of Duty" by Robert McMaster. He did what no foreign tyrant was able to do to the U.S military, he "decapitated" its head and replaced it with soldiers and academics who were politically acceptable. Competence took second place to loyalty and ideology.
McNamara did not just lose the war, he broke the U.S. military by shooting it in the head. He destroyed its culture of success.
There was however a lone voice in the wilderness. McNamara's pathology was well understood by this man. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who believed in the sanctity of civilian control of the military, he was powerless to stop McNamara. Though, in no uncertain terms expressed his views at McNamara's ineptitude in private and amongst his peers and in official reccomendations, He was powerless to speak out in public as a result of his soldiers oath. However upon retirement wrote a book on the subject, warning his fellow Americans of the dangers that the McNamara and his ilk were exposing America to. The book, aptly titled "America is in Danger" is out of print, though is still worth the effort reading. Reading it is chilling especially especially in how it predicied intelligence failures as a result of McNamara's changes under the guise of efficiency. In light of the intelligence failures of September 11, the book is prophetic The author recognised that military affairs cannot always be quantified and that a military leader must always operate knowing that his decisions are clouded by the "fog of war". Furthermore he realised one tampered with a successful culture at one's peril since it was very difficult to produce a culture of success. Indeed this man was so worried about his country that he was prepared to tarnish his unblemished reputation in order to get a public audience for his message by running as a vice presidential candidate with a morally repugnant man. He was McNamara's arch enemy, his antithesis. He was Curtis LeMay.