Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Meditation on the Death of Robert S. McNamara
In a season of one shocking death after another, it's almost oddly reassuring when somebody famous goes whom, actuarially speaking, you'd somewhat expect. So when the news came on Monday that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had passed away at the age of 93, it wasn't a great surprise--though the very name stirred up strong reactions in death as it always had in life. At the New York Times, Bob Herbert all but declared good riddance; the rival Washington Post offered a far more sympathetic view, from McNamara's friend Walter Pincus. But of all the takes I've heard or read, my mother's reaction was the most surprising, and maybe the most admirable. She viewed McNamara, she said, with great sympathy; his anguish over Vietnam, finally voiced over the last years of his life in his memoir In Retrospect and the superb Errol Morris documentary "The Fog of War," was obviously a terrible burden to bear.

Though I thought this was a fine sentiment, it also struck me as too forgiving. McNamara's brilliance was never disputed (and the value of Pincus's remembrance, I think, is that he details the former Secretary's important and overlooked reforms to defense procurement and rationalizing the command and control processes for use of nuclear weapons--a step that easily might have saved the world a time or three over the nearly fifty years since President Kennedy appointed McNamara to run the Pentagon). But among so many other things, his career shows us that brilliance untethered from sound judgment might only magnify or perpetuate a disaster.

McNamara and his team of subordinate geniuses leapt into "how" questions--from toppling Castro to resisting the communists in Vietnam. But he never grappled with the bigger question--why do it at all--until it was far too late; and famously, he continued to fulfill his role as the architect of war policy for the better part of two years after he had privately written off the war as lost. I'm actually still not clear on whether McNamara's unstated opposition to the war during that period was based solely on his conclusion that the strategy then being pursued, and/or any feasible alternative approach, was hopeless, or also embraced the understanding (admittedly a moot point by then, but one he did articulate many years later) that the original sin of America's policy in Vietnam was mistaking an essentially nationalist and anti-colonial independence movement for a communist takeover directed from Moscow or Beijing.

Actually, it's Bill James, the father of sabermetrics and adviser to the Boston Red Sox, who seems to have had the most insightful take on McNamara. (I can't find the link online; someone I know posted this on another site. The guy who posted it is about as unlikely to make something like this up as anyone I can imagine, and the voice sounds like James. So I'm going to assume it's bona fide.) After citing McNamara's indirect influence on his own work ("McNamara is in a sense one of the grandfathers of sabermetrics. The people who trained me to think about economic issues were very influenced by the work that McNamara had done... "), James characterizes his story as "a cautionary tale":

McNamara (among many others) showed us how to study data so as to see things that we hadn't seen before, and not little things, either; big, important things. But at the same time, he shows us the great danger in over-valuing what you know. McNamara thought he could put EVERYTHING on the board and figure out what to do, but you just can't; you can't do it because you can never get everything on the board. You can't measure EVERYTHING. You can't run a baseball organization entirely by sabermetrics; you just can't. If you tried, you'd wind up with a Robert-McNamara style disaster, because you'd figure out too late that there was something there that everybody knew except you.

That life ultimately defies total quantification strikes me as something for which we probably should be grateful. Perhaps the essential tragedy of Robert McNamara's life is that he realized this too late to avoid disaster for his country, but soon enough to spend the more than four decades between his departure from government and the end of his life contemplating this truth.

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