Robert Strange McNamara’s Walk Through History
My English Professor this semester asked me what I thought of the interview of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in the video, The Fog of War. This is what I told her.
The thing that struck me about this video was that the on-screen narrator, Robert S McNamara, kept referencing Curtis LeMay. General Curtis LeMay was the Air Force Chief of Staff during part of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s time in office. He was also Airman McNamara’s boss during World War II, in both the UK and China, as well as out in the Marianas. Surely they had a stormy period in the Pentagon, but yet McNamara kept going back to LeMay. There is a fascination there, a sort of respect.
Looking at signs of respect we see McNamara saying of LeMay “He was the finest combat commander of any service I came across in war.” That is no small praise, especially given that it was spoken in McNamara’s old age, when he had a chance to reflect on these things. He could have done the easy thing and gone with Patton or some Navy Admiral, but he didn’t. McNamara also credits him with the Berlin Airlift. Fair enough in that LeMay kicked it off as Commander of US Air Forces in Europe, but he then passed it off to the person who made it work over time, General Tunney. LeMay at the time was enroute to make Strategic Air Command what it should have been.
I thought the Eleven McNamara Rules all made good sense and were well illustrated:
- Empathize with your enemy.
- Rationality will not save us.
- There's something beyond one's self.
- Maximize efficiency.
- Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
- Get the data.
- Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
- Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.
- In oder to do good you may have to engage in evil.
- Never say never.
- YOu can't change human nature.
The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.♠I see Robert McNamara as a tragic figure. He is a renaissance man in some respects. While he looked studious, he was athletic. Notwithstanding his bout with polio, he continued as a mountain climber well into later life. He studied philosophy in college, although his major was in statistical analysis, the same tools that became the basis for defense policy analysis, as Charles Hitch and Roland McKean, of RAND Corporation, wrote in The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age.♥ In fact, Charlie Hitch was the man McNamara brought into the Pentagon to create the office that still exists, PA&E, or Policy Analysis and Evaluation. The creation of this office forced each of the Services to follow suite and lead to better statistical analysis of defense decisions. This idea is not new. This is what McNamara did for LeMay in World War II. Montgomery C Meigs, III, wrote a book, Slide Rules and Submarines♦ about another application of “operations research” in World War II and how it helped defeat the U-Boat threat in the North Atlantic.
For me personally, McNamara was a less than honest person. I formed this opinion back when I understood government, but not politics. One of my two examples is the famous TFX contract that birthed the F-111. The story on the street was that Boeing had the better design but General Dynamics had the factory in Fort Worth (and LBJ was in office). The assumption has always been that the F-111 contract went to GD for political reasons. The Source Selection Board went with Boeing, but McNamara picked GD, arguing that there was greater commonality between the Air Force and Navy versions. The Navy hated the thing and after Test Pilot “Bash” Nash crashed one on the runway at Point Mugu it was dropped and the F-14 emerged from the dust. Frankly, if, in the 1980s I had had to deliver a nuclear weapon into Eastern Europe, I think the F-111 would have been the best aircraft for the job, but its birth left a lot to be desired, and a bad taste in a lot of mouths.
My second example is the great bomb shortage of 1966. The press reported a shortage of bombs for aircraft flying in Viet-nam. SecDef McNamara denied there was a bomb shortage. As I recall he said there was a misallocation problem. There sure was. I was stationed at Da Nang, in Viet-nam. For a while we were flying with four Mk-81 250 pound bombs (lady fingers, as well called them), when we had been flying with six Mk-82 500 pound bombs. The B-57s on the base were flying missions guns only, with “ball” ammunition (training rounds, rather than high explosive (HE) or armor piercing incendiary (API) and with no bombs in their bomb bays. On the other hand, the US Marine Corps A-6s were flying with 12 Mk-82s per mission. The DoD was so short of bombs that we were buying them back from the Germans, to whom we had sold them as they ramped up the Luftwaffe.
One more story illustrates the situation with the SecDef. Someone I was flying with at Eglin AFB, in Florida, in 1972, had been a staff officer in the Pentagon on a previous tour. He was responsible for the “flying hour” program.♣ The Air Force budgets for fuel and purchases fuel based upon expected flying hours. The performance of the Air Force, and for each of the Services, was briefed to Secretary of Defense McNamara each month. Each month each of the officers from each of the Services would be thrown out of the Secretary’s office for doing a poor job. One day this person, Kras, was down in the basement of the Pentagon, where the Air Force was beginning to use computers to track things. He ran into a friend from earlier times and was telling his tale. His friend said, give me the data and let me put it in the computer and print it out. That is what Kras did. He got his data back on one of those 11 x 17 inch green and white stacks of computer paper. The next time he walked in to see SecDef McNamara it was all sweetness and light. On the other hand, his fellow flying hour monitors were still getting thrown out of the office. I see that as form over function. It reminds one of 2 Timothy 3:5—“Having an appearance indeed of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Now these avoid.” (Douay Rheims 1899 American Edition)
After he found that his vision regarding Viet-nam had drifted to the point that it strongly differed from that of President Johnson, SecDef McNamara left the Pentagon and went to be President of the World Bank. It was, as the Peter Principle says, a “lateral arabesque”. Of the move, McNamara says, “I didn’t know if I quit or was fired”. His friend, Katherine Graham, told him that he had been fired. That was the kind of person LBJ was.
In a way, it was probably a good thing for Robert McNamara and for the nation. The SecDef has to be loyal to his master, the President. For him to stay would have torn him apart and it would have made President Johnson very frustrated, at a time when he did not need additional frustrations. At the same time, the move to the World Bank allowed Robert McNamara to try to do good in the world. While at the World Bank Mr McNamara worked no miracles, but he did manage to avoid any spectacular failures and probably, on balance, he did more good than harm.
It was an interesting and insightful movie. As someone who had “been there” I found some footage that I thought of as bogus. One example was a clip of A-7s taking off from a Navy carrier to conduct a raid in response to the attacks on the USS TURNER JOY and MADDOX. The A-7 had its first flight in 1965, but the Gulf of Tonkin incident was in 1964.
There was, relatively speaking, a lot of focus in the film on the buildup of napalm canisters (BLU-1/B), but not mentioning that that was what it was. I know that many people are scandalized by napalm. It is a frightening weapon. But, it is like the firebombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities, which was touched on in the movie. Would using high explosives to kill that many people have been more humane? And, with napalm, the weapon was more frightening than murderous. In 1972 I was the Contracts Officer on an R&D contract for a replacement for the current napalm. The development work was being done by Lockheed Corporation, at a facility outside LA.
The Air Force Headquarters project supervisor was Colonel Brooks Morris, whose father was Chester Morris, who starred in the movies as “Boston Blackie”. Colonel Morris observed that the tests didn’t give us anything better and soon thereafter the Air Force dropped napalm from its inventory. For me, the direct benefit of the whole thing was that while attending tests I got to have dinner with my father, who lived in Orange County, California, while I was in the Fort Walton Beach, Florida, area. The world is quirky that way. We would have dinner and then he would drive me to LAX, where I would grab the “Red Eye” and sleep from LA to Atlanta, take a puddle jumper to Fort Walton Beach, go home, change cloths and go to work.
Regards — Cliff
♠ von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Book 2, Chapter 2, Para 24. (It should be noted that the book was a disorganized manuscript at the author’s death and his wife pulled it all together and got it published.)
♥ New editions seem to have dropped Roland McKean’s name as a co-author.
♦ I know of the book because my youngest son, Randy, fixed Monty Meigs’ computer when it crashed, with the manuscript locked up on the hard drive. At the time, Monty worked for me, before going on to be a four star general. The other thing to note is that Monty is named after his distant relative, the one who put Arlington Cemetery in Bobby Lee’s back yard, so when he looked out in the morning he (Lee) would see all the Union soldiers he had killed. As it was, General Lee never returned to the Custis-Lee Mansion.
♣ Flying hours are driven by fuel consumption and maintenance hours. When I had a squadron of O-2As (basically a militarized Cessna Skymaster) we would fly our hours and then borrow one or two hours from the F 4s as Elmendorf AFB, in Anchorage. The trade-off was one of theirs gave us forty of ours. When I was flying F-16s in Germany we would take hours from the F-111s, who couldn’t fly all their hours in a given year. But, that is another whole story.