Certainty That Hit a Wall

I grew up in the shadow of Robert McNamara, almost literally. My father, Paul Ignatius, joined his team at the Pentagon in 1961 and remained with him through the Vietnam years as a close aide and, afterward, as a friend. So for me, McNamara's death evokes a whole world of relationships and dreams and reversals that characterized the Washington of the 1960s.

I have an old photograph that captures what 1961 felt like, if you were an 11-year-old watching the McNamara era dawn at the Pentagon. It shows my dad's swearing-in for his first job at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of the Army, and my mother and me looking up at him with measureless pride and confidence. The McNamara family must have many similar photographs of those early days of "the best and the brightest," before the phrase had developed a knife-edge.

What a sense of possibility McNamara conveyed in those first years -- the audacity, not of hope but of reason. He came to Washington as the ultimate rationalist, believing that he could transform the bureaucratic morass of the Defense Department into something modern and efficient. He gathered his "whiz kids," bright young aides like my father, and encouraged them to challenge outmoded practices, politics be damned. And he backed them all the way.

My father recommended to McNamara, for example, that he should close the Watertown Arsenal, a venerable but outmoded facility in Massachusetts. The Bay State might have expected a little patronage, with John F. Kennedy having been elected president and John McCormack serving as speaker of the House. But McNamara never thought to question the base closure. He didn't need a BRAC commission or some other camouflage. He just told my dad and his other deputies to do what was right.

The military never really forgave McNamara for that determination to apply modern management techniques to the nation's defense. The generals and admirals didn't want to be rationalized; they had built a mighty machine to battle the Soviet Union, and they resented McNamara's attempt to impose change.

Then came Vietnam, the war that will forever be attached to McNamara's name. Vietnam shattered the rationalist's faith: Here was a peasant enemy, fighting in what looked to us like pajamas and living off handfuls of rice, that somehow persisted against all of America's military might -- and all of McNamara's slide-rule calculations. The military kept insisting that with another 100,000 troops and an expanded list of bombing targets, this improbable enemy would be finished. But it wasn't that kind of war, and it slowly ground McNamara down.

For all his seeming certainty, McNamara was a reluctant warrior, half in and half out, increasingly convinced that our firepower wouldn't work in this asymmetrical war. For the military, that was his greatest sin -- that he sacrificed young American lives without fully believing in the possibility of victory.

During the Vietnam years, the fathers in McNamara's Pentagon would come home at night as if dragging an immense weight. These were men who had never known failure, yet somehow, they were stumped by this war. Watching these charmed and brilliant people struggling with Vietnam was haunting. It was as if a magnificent sports car had hit a wall at high speed. You couldn't tell, at first, how severe the damage was.

McNamara was a more sensitive man than most people knew, and as the shadows of Vietnam lengthened, he was deeply shaken by the war. He had trouble controlling his emotions in public in the final months before he quit the Pentagon in early 1968. In his later years, he showed a wounded vulnerability and a desire to understand and expiate the Vietnam mistake.

McNamara's legacy is complicated for me. In my adolescent years, I thought the question was simple -- the Vietnam War had been wrong, and I joined the protest marches demanding an end to it. But over time, and seeing my own errors of judgment, I have found another lesson: Be careful of the certainties that McNamara conveyed; be wary of the notion that smart people can solve any problem if they just try hard enough.

Nobody gets to do over his mistakes, least of all Robert McNamara. But perhaps the memory of this brilliant and tragic man will keep us from being too certain of our own judgment -- and encourage us to consider, even when we feel most confident, the possibility that we could be wrong.

David Ignatius