Robert McNamara, Voltaire's Bastards And Barack Obama

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara will be best known by those whose who participated in the Vietnam War as the intellectual architect of a conflict whose beginnings are still murky and whose endings provides us with endless metaphors, and lessons, for today.  What did McNamara fundamentally believe he got wrong? Nothing more, he wrote in 1995, than a misunderstanding about what America's history and traditions implied for the course of Vietnam. He had plenty of time to think about this concept, and yet he still didn't get it right. For people in Washington, McNamara's folly was an institutional folly: the belief that one smart person with a vision can see what thousands of others with experience cannot.  The fog of war, the irrationality of human nature, the limits of formal chains of command, the limits of reason itself, and a fundamental conflation of decision-making and administration. John Ralston Saul, in Volatire's Bastards, makes McNamara a central character in his tale of Western governments came to rely on a cult of credentialed, jargon-y experts to make decisions that were better left to politicians. This is not a conservative critique of the elite, per se: it's merely a meditation on the limits of what humans can do, and know, and why it is dangerous to leave major decisions in the hands of people who think they can know.  We've see a version of this fallacy play out among the central actors in our economic crisis: CEOs and experts, quants and traders, who created an orderly world from something fundamentally, almost irreducibly complex. 

We live in an era where another band of credentialed experts promise answers to many profoundly complex questions. There may well be an element of humility in Barack Obama that his intellectual predecessors lacked -- Obama has shown a capacity to change his mind, quickly, and to surround himself with people who have made mistakes in public life (and thus acquired some humility of their own).  Some elements are there: the creation of layers of czars and administratively-empowered specialists; the privileging of evidence-based decision making. Some are not: Obama seems to believe in the power of democratic institutions and the acculturation effect of permitting and an encouraging public debate about contentious issues. His deference to Congress -- and to his commanders -- probably stems from his understanding of balance of power issues and not necessarily because he agrees with the thesis that rationalism isn't all its cracked up to be.


I am less enamored of the "rationalist" critique of McNamara than I used to be. For one thing, our best citizen-soldiers were prized for their managerial skills, and not for their battlefield tactics or aggressiveness. Our best field generals were never our best politicians, and vice-versa. McNamara inherited a defense bureaucracy that was uniquely suited to his management style, and one that, at the beginning of the war, had already begun to mimic, in structure and function, corporate America; he did not create one.  If our perception of Vietnam as a tragedy were not so acute, McNamara might not have had reason to feel guilty. 

As for parallels between McNamara and former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, the late David Halberstam had some provocative thoughts in 2006. Certainly, both are credited (er, blamed) for screwing up the balance between political and military control over the armed forces. There are limits: in skill set, McNamara is more like the current defense secretary, Robert Gates, who has been much more successful (but who was fortuitously given the job on the tale end of an unpopular war.)  McNamara might have been a better fit to manage the transition out of Vietnam, but history, and contingency, thrust him into a role to which he was uniquely unsuited -- a role that he could not play, but that he did not know he could not play it until the reviews came in.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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