A living eulogy to Robert Strange McNamara

Here is a fine slide presentation, filled with graphs and numbers of all kinds.  Just like those the late SecDef McNamara watched, and by which he steered the Vietnam War.

While this data is useful, it tend to ignore the larger issues that determine victory or defeat.

Here is my favorite among the countless McNamara stories. From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

{His} mind was mathematical, bringing order and reason out of chaos. Always reason. And reason supported by facts, by statistics — he could prove his rationality with facts, intimidate others. He was marvelous with charts and statistics.

Once, sitting a CINCPAC for 8 hours watching hundreds and hundreds of slides flashed across the screen showing what was in the pipe line to Vietnam and what was already there, he finally said, after 7 hours, “Stop the projector. This slide, number 869, contradicts slide 11.”” Slide 11 was flashed back and he was right, they did contradict each other.

Everyone was impressed, and many a little frightened. No wonder his reputation grew; others were in awe. For it was a mind that could continue to summon its own mathematical kind of sanity into bureaucratic battle, long after the others, the good liberal social scientists who had never gone beyond their original logarithms, had trailed off into the dust.

Though finally, when the mathematical version of sanity did not work out, when it turned out that the computer had not fed back the right answers and had underestimated those funny little far-off men in their raggedy pajamas, he would be stricken with a profound sense of failure, and he would be, at least briefly, a shattered man.

For more information

To read other articles about our wars, see these FM reference page (listed on the right side menu bar):

Posts about the War in Afghanistan:

  1. Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  3. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  5. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  6. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  8. A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  9. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  10. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  11. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  12. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  13. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  14. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  15. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009
  16. “The Great Afghan Bailout” by Tom Engelhardt, 14 April 2009
  17. Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  18. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  19. Can we answer SecDef Gates’ question about NATO and the Af-Pak War?, 19 May 2009
  20. Troops without proper equipment in 2004, troops without proper equipment in 2009 – where’s the outrage?, 20 May 2009
  21. New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
  22. The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan , 1 June 2009
  23. Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”, 9 June 2009
  24. An expert explains why we must fight in Afghanistan, 11 June 2009
  25. Some experts’ review of a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  26. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009

1 thought on “A living eulogy to Robert Strange McNamara”

  1. This is a complex briefing, lots of data, some of it contradictory, and hard to get one’s head around. Cordesman has done an admirable job pulling out salient points.

    At the tactical level, the question is, “Will the people who need this information get it?” CSIS is well-respected, but I wonder, for example, if the air commander, General North, has the opportunity to read civilian strategic analyses, as opposed to all the stuff coming out of the intel community. At that level, you really have to fight hard to keep yourself informed and avoid being sucked into the day-to-day crises.

    At the strategic level, the questions that need to be constantly asked and answered by the new administration, particularly Secretary Gates and Principle Undersecretary for Policy Michelle Flournoy, are: What are we doing there? What are our goals? What is the end game and exit strategy? Is it worth the cost in lives and treasure compared to other alternatives?

    But then there is an entire other level where the answers to those grand strategic questions are measured against the political environment (the “art of the possible”) and, more cynically, political advantage to be gained or lost.

    This system is too complex and will degenerate into a bureaucratic morass without people of integrity and selfless leadership at all levels, all aligned and working together. We grow too few of these people now in America, land of the free-loader and the “victim” who “needs” a bail-out for his bad decisions.

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