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Robert Strange McNamara, a Man for the Soulless Age

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Somewhere along the way, in keeping with the bureaucratic times, Hannah Arendt's banality of evil developed into a vast, modern technocracy of evil. Progress marches on, or at least calculates on. When the German sociologist Max Weber defined modernity as the rationalization, bureaucratization and the disenchantment of the world, he might have been foreseeing the rise of that 1960ish model of the perfect executive, Robert Strange McNamara.

The man was the very personification of the Best and Brightest who took their trusting country, and some half a million American troops, into the charnel house that the Vietnam War proved to be. What a monstrosity these great administrators birthed -- largely because of their very efficiency, a quality they embodied so fully it far outshone any others they might have had. Now we tend to forget how celebrated these masterminds were in their time, when the Kennedys were young and the White House was Camelot. Of all the bitter lessons offered by the long life and, as it turned out, bloody times of this strange, distant man, perhaps the central one is never, never trust a technocrat with power, at least if it's the power of life and death, and he's the kind of technocrat who's nothing but a technocrat. For a man whose decisions cost his country so much in blood -- never mind the treasure -- this secretary of defense was a curiously bloodless figure. He was a numbers man, just following the logic of his own calculations. The numbers made him do it, though he called them metrics. That way, they sound more authoritative, scientific. Mr. McNamara never denied his role in any of it. On the contrary, he seemed devoted to analyzing the war in Vietnam -- before, during and afterward. Analysis was his reason for being. At least numerical analysis. He and his Whiz Kids analyzed war the way an accountant might analyze "King Lear": as a problem in cost-benefit ratios. Later he would admit that the war, at least as he waged it, had been "a major error." The classical concept of tragedy -- not the way it's used now as a synonym for any accident -- never seemed to enter his steel-trap mind. A sin? A betrayal of American honor? Such thoughts he left to sentimentalists. He had his policies to analyze. Metrically. Robert McNamara spent his old age analyzing. As if, if only he went over every detail again and again, the bottom line would change, or at least future generations would learn to do their sums better. In his memoirs, he finally told the rest of us that, yes, he knew the war was lost, yet he kept on throwing good lives after bad. Do the honorable thing and resign? Such a step, the sheer irrational honor of it, would have been foreign to him. What was he supposed to do, retreat to a monastery, repent, atone, pray for his soul, ask forgiveness? How medieval. He belongs to history now, which should find him fascinating in an appalling and, let's hope, cautionary way. He was the very culmination of an historic trend that is not yet spent. For the belief is still strong among our best and brightest that salvation lies not in the old myths about The Fall and the sinfulness of man, but in a bright new age that will be ushered in by science, technology and all the numerical arts. "Since the 18th century," Flannery O'Connor observed with her usual uncanny knack for observing such things, "the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of those advances." It wasn't that he didn't realize what was happening. After the first 25,000 American dead, Robert McNamara knew the war was being lost. He could recite every detail, every conference call and conversation. Yet none of it seemed to touch him, except as a problem in policymaking. Discussing the war in retrospect, he might now and then offer a hint of an apology, but it was never more than that, and it always came out as more of an apologia. Indeed, it was delivered with the air of a man who expected us to thank him for educating us. To the end, he remained deaf to the moral enormity of what he had done. Error he could understand; sin didn't figure on his spreadsheets. The pieces being moved around on his chessboard -- the tens of thousands of American boys, the millions of Vietnamese -- might cry out, suffer and die, but he could only follow where his calculations led him. Even when he could not deny all was lost in Vietnam, Robert McNamara kept on increasing the stakes. He never insisted on a complete change of strategy, of leaders, of generalship. That would have been too dramatic, too human. It was how an inarticulate, unsophisticated, unscientific George W. Bush might react. When that president was finally persuaded to change course in Iraq, he would fire his secretary of defense, get his unsuccessful generals out of there, find his U.S. Grant in David Petraeus, order a Surge and save the day -- not to mention a whole country and American credibility in a crucial part of the world. But that wasn't Robert McNamara's way. He just did the same thing over and over again with more and more troops, not even expecting a different result, just following the numbers. Surely the numbers, the body counts, couldn't be wrong. Utter rationality can bear a frightening resemblance to moral insanity. Proving that nothing succeeds in Washington like failure, Mr. McNamara would go on to a successful career (for him) as head of the World Bank, where he wasted only money rather than lives, and ruined economies rather than nations. Though, come to think, policies that fail to assure economic freedom and self-reliance can prove just as ruinous. Which they did. And for that, too, he was treated as a sage. Much like Richard Nixon when that disgraced president would make his comeback in the public eye despite everything. In 1968, as all was coming apart at home and abroad, Robert S. McNamara was awarded the Medal of Freedom. Demonstrating once again that the good die young, Robert McNamara died this week at 93. Peacefully. In his sleep. May God have mercy on his soul -- surely he had one, despite all appearances -- and on us all. I will try not to think of him on Memorial Days to come. Or when reading the nigh-endless names on the Vietnam War memorial. It would be the charitable thing to do. But the nation would do well to remember the lessons he taught, however unintentionally. I shall miss him. The man had his uses. For example, we could always blame him for everything that went wrong in Vietnam and elsewhere -- like the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. We forget that it was We the People who elected John F. Kennedy, the president who chose this bright 44-year-old to be his secretary of defense, the youngest in the country's history. And it was Lyndon Johnson, also the People's Choice, who kept him on in that post. He made a great scapegoat, Robert McNamara did, and still does. Examining his decisions, we don't have to think about our own role in putting him where he could make them. Maybe we should.

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