Monday, July 6, 2009
Policy wonks everywhere are mourning the passing of Robert McNamara. Whatever one's opinion of him, he was certainly one of the most interesting Cabinet officers ever. The Post has an excellent piece on his legacy. There are many take-aways for today's conflicts from this article, but these two paragraphs strike me as extremely relevant:
"On his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962, before most Americans had heard of the place and before the involvement of American combat forces, McNamara said that "every quantitative measurement we have shows we're winning this war."
It was a statement often quoted by his critics in later years, because it seemed to encapsulate the fallacy of his approach. American troops did prevail in many of the big battles, and the United States did win the war by every statistical measurement on the Pentagon charts that McNamara so admired. But the numbers -- even the few that were accurate -- had little to do with the political reality on the ground."
Even by ignoring the myth that the only metric used in Vietnam was "body counts," McNamara's story exemplifies how relying too much on metrics distorts the reality of the conflict in which you are engaged. Further, most metrics will be defined in a manner that permits political exploitation - defined to ensure success or defined so vaguely as to be meaningless. As an example, the Iraq "benchmarks" fit the bill for both of these circumstances.
I am a big fan of metrics. The quantitative measurement of conflict is extraordinarily intriguing and useful in helping paint the picture on the success of operations. They do not, however, provide exact realities - especially with regard to gauging the sympathies of the population. GEN McChrystal's command review will no doubt devise metrics that will demonstrate ISAF's success, not dishonestly but due to the nature of the subject. We should track and measure these metrics to gain a sense on how things are going, but remember: they have little to do with the political reality on the ground.