The Robert S. McNamara who helped lead the United States into defeat and shame in Vietnam would never have anticipated or trusted what I am about to recount. None of the computers he depended on to chart that war could quantify serendipity or instinct.
I’m not sure what the other McNamara — the remorseful , melancholy ex-president of the World Bank whom I came to know long after Vietnam had ended — would have made of this circumstance: Word of his death at 93 reached me as I was talking about the history and future of counterinsurgency in Asia with a 23-year-old Army lieutenant due to undertake a tour of combat duty in Afghanistan within a year.
The elder McNamara would have been agnostic about the coincidence, I suspect. He was frequently described as a tragic figure deep into expiation at that stage of his life. Tragic he was — all the more so because he refused to the end to accept how he had helped create the tragedy that destroyed his reputation. Of McNamara’s failings, that was his greatest.
So I put the cruelest of questions to Alex Frank, currently in an infantry officer training course, after hearing him argue that counterinsurgency could be made to work in Afghanistan. McNamara thought that about Indochina, I said. Why should it be different in Central Asia?
“McNamara seemed to have underestimated the importance of shaping the environment before you act,” responded Frank, a family friend who has read broadly and deeply in the literature on guerrilla warfare and quotes from it with ease. “You build up enough energy and at decisive turning points that energy gets unleashed to determine the outcome.”
He quickly adds: “In McNamara’s day, everybody in the administration went along with the same line. There was no arguing out of positions. It was all ‘just get the stuff and the soldiers over there and the conflict will sort itself out.’ That is not true today.”
Let’s hope he is right on Afghanistan. I am not yet convinced. On McNamara and Vietnam, Frank’s views mesh with those of Ward Just, premier war correspondent and later a superb novelist about Washington during those years.
“McNamara was not a bad man, but he was a flawed one,” Just told me yesterday. “Everything had to be justified and explained by numbers and computers. That led him to misunderstand the fundamental reality of the war: They wanted it more than we did. Even a newspaperman understood that by 1967.”
And yet McNamara was considered to be the brightest of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen when he came from Ford Motor Co. to run the Pentagon. As the United States waded deeper into Indochina, he armed himself with data and an aura of arrogant invincibility that shut out the arguments of history, and of national character, that foretold an American disaster.
David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” and other books and film documentaries tell that story. But in my eyes, McNamara himself penned the most damning thing ever written about him in his 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect.”
I don’t quarrel with the belief he stated in that book that the United States “fought in Vietnam for eight years for what it believed to be good and honest reasons,” even though they were misguided. But in claiming that there was no significant expertise on Vietnam in the government to guide policymakers, McNamara falsified his own record of ignoring or rejecting dissent from Paul Kattenburg, George Ball and others who did foresee disaster and argued for changes in policy.
McNamara had too much invested in the war policies he had urged on Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to take their advice. So he clung to the illusion that it never existed. There could be no more cautionary a tale for senior officials now in power.
Fortunately for young officers like Alex Frank, and the rest of us, Washington today is a very different, more open place. George W. Bush finally changed course in Iraq and rescued U.S. involvement there from a Vietnam-like collapse. And President Obama has acted more thoughtfully on Iraq, and Afghanistan, than his campaign promises indicated would be the case. He is working to give the people of both nations a chance to live securely and decently. To succeed, Obama must persuade Americans to show strategic patience with those efforts. He must avoid the intellectual hubris and blindness that Robert McNamara, as brilliant as he was, sadly came to personify.