Tag: Robert McNamara

A McNamara Syndrome?

Robert McNamara was complex giant in the field. Since his passing on Monday, several prominent IR scholars and practitioners have eulogized his life in a variety of ways. Most authors, however, note the disjointed nature of his legacy—great achievement in modernizing the Department of Defense, but also enormous failure in Vietnam. As someone often consumed by the power of numbers, for me McNamara’s most compelling accomplishment was his dogged persistence in applying the quantitative approaches to management that garnered him great success at Ford Motor Company to the Department of Defense. McNamara was also a (unconscious) believer in rational choice theory, at a time when these concepts were still the abstract vision of a small community of academics. If nothing else, McNamara’s evidence-based decision making was well ahead of its time.

In yesterday’s New York Times Errol Morris, director of the definitive McNamara documentary “The Fog of War,” wrote an excellent op-ed pondering how to remember the man. Morris’ closing remark refers directly his rational mentality, and its ultimate fallibility:

If he failed, it is because he tried to bring his idea of rationality to problems that were bigger and more deeply irrational than he or anyone else could rationally understand. For me, the most telling moment in my film about Mr. McNamara, “The Fog of War,” is when he says, “Perhaps rationality isn’t enough.” His career was built on rational solutions, but in the end he realized it all might be for naught.

This is quite provocative, but I reject the assertion that McNamara faced an irrational world. More likely, the ordered rationality he observed in Detroit was muddled In Washington by the layers of bureaucratic malaise and political absurdity. What Morris does not consider, however, is how the failure of McNamara’s methods permeated the defense establishment, and their consequences. That is, after being humiliated in Vietnam, and using McNamara as a prideful scapegoat, did the defense community develop an aversion to the quantification of warfare? A McNamara Syndrome?

The evidence seems to suggest that this may be the case. Of the prominent U.S. military leaders in the proceeding half-century, only Colin Powell approached McNamara in his desire understand the dynamics of conflict through evidence-based analysis (it should be noted that Gen. Powell was ultimately not rewarded for this approach). What, then, is the role for modern political science in a defense policy community plagued by this syndrome? While there is still an ongoing debate within the discipline as to the value of quantitative versus qualitative methods, the fact is most contemporary discourse in political science—especially in IR—is based on rational choice models, and explained through large-scale quantitative analysis. This creates an extremely problematic paradox: IR scholars reject baseless theory and attempt to explain conflict through simple rational theory and quantitative analysis; however, IR practitioners reject the value of these theories and methods, and attempt to manage conflict through institutional knowledge.

Perhaps McNamara’s most significant contribution is the institutional fear of methodology his failures instilled at the DoD; ultimately resulting in the much lamented gap between theory and and practice in international relations. As scholars, we must first ask ourselves if we care to overcome the McNamara Syndrome. If so, how can we reconcile our methods with the practice?


RIP: Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara was arguably one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. I summarized the highlights from his CV on my blog a few years ago:

He was a Harvard professor, an executive at Ford Motor Company (the first leader not from the Ford family), Secretary of Defense from 1961-1967, and then President of the World Bank until 1981.

This sentence omits the role McNamara played in World War II, which involved his assignment to the Office of Statistical Control for the Army Air Force. He evaluated the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. B-29 bombers, which ultimately firebombed 67 Japanese cities under the command of General Curtis LeMay. In the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War,” McNamara states simply

LeMay said that “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” “And I think he’s right,” says McNamara. “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.” . . . “LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side has lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

McNamara considered himself a war criminal even without taking the Vietnam war into account.

In the early part of this decade, I had dinner with McNamara and some local colleagues after the former Defense Secretary spoke on the Louisville campus. I told him that I was working on the “Bush Doctrine” and he scoffed about America’s priorities. It was far too long ago to quote him, but I recall his noting that the U.S. was hypocritically developing burrowing nuclear weapons to be able to strike underground “WMD” (even chemical and biological weapons) facilities with nuclear weapons.

Also, he pointed out that he had recently traveled to Russia and personally observed WMD facilities guarded by a single man with a sidearm and a rather ordinary looking padlock.

McNamara spent more than a quarter century trying to redeem his past. I’m not sure that he succeeded, but he certainly attempted to do some good in the last 25 years. For example, McNamara was a prominent member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Perhaps the public service of other talented people will be inspired by the post-government efforts of this man.


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