Robert McNamara, the architect of the failed Vietnam War, died earlier this week. He was a major force on the American political scene throughout the 1960s. Then, he re-emerged in 2004, when Errol Morris released The Fog of War, an Oscar-winning documentary that features McNamara looking back on his career and highlighting the lessons learned from the Vietnam experience. You can watch the film above. (Admittedly the film quality is not the best.) Or you can buy it here.
In the meantime, a quick factoid: After McNamara left the Johnson administration under a fair amount of disgrace, he was appointed to lead The World Bank. Fast forward to 2005, and we have Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of the Iraq War, leaving the Dept. of Defense also under disgrace and getting to lead The World Bank. Now we know where our next military bungler will go and save some face…
An excerpt from John Ralston Sauls “Voltaire’s Bastards” which McNamara definitely was:
“Robert McNamara is, John Ralston Saul says, a man of honour. His career has been founded upon the belief that “the application of reason, logic and efficiency will necessarily produce good.” In McNamara’s own mind he is probably a modern Richelieu or Bismarck, in Saul’s he is a kind of diplomatic Norman Wisdom, a well-meaning fool whose actions “have resulted in uncontrollable disasters from which the West has not recovered.”
McNamara started the arms race, precipitated the failure of Vietnam and created the Third World debt crisis. It is a proud record that puts him at the head of Saul’s long list of blunderers who have been dazzled and hypnotised by a conception of rationality that is ineffective and, frequently, lethal.
The reason before which the incompetent rationalist technocrats prostrate themselves is a perversion of the reason of the Enlightenment. What the technocrats mean by reason is the objective application of expertise and analysis to the facts and to the future. Such a definition has certain implications: it excludes values, it simplifies and it creates hermetic sodalities of expertise. Furthermore, this reason is anti-democratic: the voice of the people will clearly get in the way and, from the perspective of the technocrat, will probably be wrong.”
Robert McNamara symbolized America’s deep rooted affinity for fundamentalist reason which I believe, over the years has significantly, shaped its foreign policy. This fundamentalist “reason” is sort of the philosophical dual of fundamentalist religion and McNamara was its Osama. We’re talking about the Bay of Pigs, The Cuban Missile Crisis and eventually Vietnam. Instead of criticizing the man – Id rather take a dig at his legacy – this “slick” image of “wont take no for an answer” American is what needs to be challenged and thankfully is. I have nothing personal against the US, I just wish it acted lesser than a “Defender of the Free World” back in the day. A strong contemporary critic of McNamara is Jon Ralston Saul and I encourage anyone guilty of the “holier than thou” image that American often portrayed, read.
Wolfowitz left the Department of Defense “under disgrace”? Well, if you consider deposing one of world’s most brutal and oppressive tyrants a failure, then I suppose yes. But for those of us who value liberty and a just form of government, I don’t think so.