Tuesday, July 7, 2009

McNamara's next chance at redemption

Robert McNamara’s obituary in the New York Times is not half as interesting as the comments beneath it. Roughly four in five comments are on the verge of, or plainly, hateful. I agree this is not necessarily a very good measure of public opinion (readers are more likely to chime in when they are outraged than when they have something nice to say), but it bears the interesting question as to why McNamara, despite his repeated attempts to apologize for his admitted mistakes during his time as Secretary of Defense, never was able to convince. In Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, he suggested that he had been found guilty of, more than anything, losing the Vietnam War:

“We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children. LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals. What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

But that’s not quite enough. I wonder if it if not precisely McNamara’s apologies that prompted so much contempt and despisal against him. In his memoirs published fourteen years ago, he did not merely admit to having made mistakes : he acknowledged that he knew these were mistakes at the time he was making them. This is what made In Retrospect read like a Greek tragedy: it pictured a man who knew he was damned but went through his ordeal as best as he could nonetheless. McNamara described himself as being put in a situation where there were no good options, and all decisions made would fall short of satisfying anyone. In his own memoirs, Clark Clifford described a McNamara on the verge of nervous breakdown by the end of his tenure : he was, reportedly, close to tears while telling his successor at the Defense Department, during a meeting in February 1968 : “We simply have to end this thing. I just hope you can get hold of it. It is out of control”.

Much more than his early recommendations to increase the American commitment in Vietnam, it seems to me that the reason why, forty years later, people can not forgive McNamara is the fact that once he understood—as he very clearly did—that there was no way to win the war, he did not do more to stop it. This is as much a criticism of McNamara (who, to be fair, certainly did try, on several occasions, to convey his doubts to Johnson) as of the decision-making process at the time. I remember being startled reading the notes taken during a working lunch with Dean Rusk, McNamara, Clark Clifford, Nick Katzenbach, Bill Bundy, Walt Rostow, Harry McPherson, and Joe Califano in February 1968 (the main item on the agenda was Westmoreland’s request for 205,000 more troops), which concluded with : “General impression: prevailing uncertainty. Radically different proposals were offered and debated, none rejected out of hand. […].We are at a point of crisis. McNamara expressed grave doubts over military, economic, political, diplomatic and moral consequences of a larger force buildup in SVN. Q[uestion] is whether these profound doubts will be presented to President.”

I wonder if Johnson, had he lived, would have received such scorn forty years later. I doubt he would have apologized like McNamara did, but who knows? (there was not a hint of it in The Vantage Point, but that was only a few years after he stepped down from the re-election campaign ; time may have given him more opportunity to reflect). People have forgiven Kennedy for his stepping up of the American involvement in Vietnam ; Nixon went down in shame, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the Vietnam War—even though more Americans died in Asia between 1970 and 1975, long after McNamara was gone, than during the six years that preceded. McNamara’s last major sin, it seems, is to have lived until 93 (again, the New York Times readers’ comments are quite telling in this regard) while so many of those he sent to war did not. Reaching such a venerable age was also McNamara’s damnation, for he could see the titanic effect the Vietnam war had on American policy, military, and culture for the decades to follow.

In my humble opinion, In Retrospect should be mandatory reading for all the current best and brightest whose analysis or recommendations feed into the decisions made in times of war.


  1. If one reads McMaster's work, one realizes quickly that McNamara wasn't alone in quietly allowing the war to meander to its obvious conclusions.

    This has created quite a debate about the protean role of civil-military affairs: Should generals with grave concerns about the looming invasion of Iraq have spoken out publicly on what they believed was an impending disaster?

    How loud should retired officers have become during the crucial 2004 election?

    Should TV networks find out, and then disclose to audiences, the partisan or commercial or institutional conflicts of their paid sources in the ranks of retired officers?

    Does the all-volunteer force actually retard democratic decision-making because policy elites won't face the backlash from conscription tied to bad strategic choices?

    Although GEN Petraeus rose to great prominence during the so-called "Surge," even absenting himself from the traditional chain of command that's bound overseas commanders, what should be the model for uniformed leadership in the future?

    Many critics believe GEN Casey was elevated to CSA as a form of fire-by-promotion. Should the architect of failed combat operations be rewarded with higher command?

    All these issues also were hotly debated during, and shortly after, McNamara's tenure at the Pentagon. Which ones do you believe we've gone the farthest to address successfully?

    Which ones likely will never be resolved?

  2. Soldiernolongeriniraq :

    All good questions… McNamara certainly was not alone, raising the question as to why he was, more than anyone, singled out at the villain. The prominence of the SecDef position, his personal attitude, the high expectations that were cast on him (he was, after all, one of those « whiz kids »), and, I would argue, his subsequent apologies are all part of the answer.

    As Daniel Ellsberg and others have eloquently shown, most of those involved in the decision-making surrounding the Vietnam War have focused their efforts on not being the ones to lose the war, rather than winning it (an objective many of them knew was futile). The military and the civilian leadership have been struggling with most of the points you raise since the Vietnam War, and most of them are not resolved. Admission of failure is still taboo. Even in the current conflicts, you had people who criticized how the war was conducted (for instance, Rtd. Gal. Jack Keane in Iraq) and a few who questioned the rationale behind our involvement (Bacevich comes to mind, in his capacity as former military rather than an academic), but much fewer would say something like : « we can not win, let’s cut our losses now ». A few decades ago in France, « defeatism » in times of war was considered a crime. I am not sure if the same exist(ed) in the US, but at the very least, it would call for accusations of anti-patriotism (and maybe even socialism, as an offshoot of pacifism?).

    It seems to me that top officers have a duty to let the civilian leadership know, when they have this access, what their concerns are if they have consider them to be grave enough. Truman famously had on his desk a « the buck stops here » sign. If word that the situation is desperate goes up the chain of command, reaches the civilian leadership, and action is not subsequently taken, then the responsibility lies with the Commander in Chief—the President. Obviously speaking up can break a few carreers, which is why it is easier for retired generals (Keane comes again to mind) to do so. Unfortunately, not everyone has a top position at the World Bank as a back-up plan.

    « Does the all-volunteer force actually retard democratic decision-making because policy elites won't face the backlash from conscription tied to bad strategic choices? » Probably. A draft nowadays would be inconceivable, although for some units such as the National Guard the duration of deployment has been so much extended, in ways that those who joined probably never quite anticipated, that it has a « draft feeling » to it. But we are still far from an actual draft. The absence of a draft caps at a lower level the number of troops that can be deployed, potentially limiting escalation. Because of this limitation, I would argue that even though it retards democratic decision-making, it also makes the decisions that escape democratic decision-making somehow less catastrophic—at least to some extent.

    And is Petraeus a model for a new type of leadership, less constrained by the hierarchy and traditional chain of command ? COIN classical studies emphasize the importance of a more decentralized leadership, where junior officers may end up as the sole responsible for a large area to control and are expected to take important initiatives without immediate supervision. In a way, this is what Petraeus did at a much higher level. His experience shows that the military structure has some flexibility, which is good. Now the risk is that had he failed, he would have paid a high price for it, as no one would have backed him up. However, cases such as the investigations that followed Abu Ghraib show that most of the time only the lowest-ranking people involved, not the top brass or the civilian leadership, gets chastised for wrongdoings. So if there is not going to be any back up from the top of the chain of command anyway, then why not go the Petraeus road ?

  3. Great comments above.

    Just briefly, to address only one of SNLII's questions...

    Does the all-volunteer force actually retard democratic decision-making because policy elites won't face the backlash from conscription tied to bad strategic choices?

    There's a great post this morning at Kings of War that nibbles around the edges of this question.

    We all know what Clausewitz thought: passion in war was typically associated with the population. Their engagement allowed societies to endure great hardship in awful industrial conflicts. But then, they would probably be involved in the fighting themselves. To endure the horror of modern war, it was essential that they were passionately engaged: reason didn’t come into it. Chateaubriand hit the nail on the head when he wrote that: "Men don’t allow themselves to be killed for their interests, they allow themselves to be killed for their passions."

    That’s true of modern war, but what about postmodern? How long can you sustain non-existential wars when the much of the population is sceptical or apathetic at best; albeit that it remains well disposed to its small professional armed forces? The answer is, I think, that we don’t really know: we’ve only been here once before in Iraq, and that’s not a hopeful example.

    And so taking the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, hasn't popular outrage in a number of countries impacted the way those wars are fought (or more accurately, the political decisions related to the prosecution of the war)? Is that not democratic? Does it take broad popular representation in the armed forces, or collective sacrifice by folks on the homefront, for people to call for a change in course?

    Aren't we now, with the financial crisis, in a place where the financial costs of a war are as impactful on the public's view of its necessity as the human costs have always been?