Outside editorial: Learning from McNamara

Posted: Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A mid the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the recent death of the King of Pop, it's worth noting the loss Monday of the King of Bang. Robert Strange McNamara, who died at his home in Washington at 93, helped engineer the nuclear escalation of the Cold War and the military escalation of the Vietnam War, a brilliant man who rose quickly to the pinnacle of the corporate and government worlds only to become the poster child for wrongheaded hubris.

Much has been said and written about McNamara's mistakes (including by McNamara himself), but maybe the key lesson of his history is that the lessons of history don't always apply. Using yesterday's solutions for today's problems often fails, just as it did in Vietnam.

Though McNamara was a successful executive at Ford Motor Co. in the 1950s and an influential chief of the World Bank in the 1970s, he is best remembered for his seven-year tenure as secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He pursued the job with remarkable zeal and efficiency, yet failed to understand until late in his tenure that high-tech hardware can't win a battle of hearts and minds. Throwing ever-more men and explosives at the problem had propelled this country to victory in two world wars, yet it was ineffective against Vietnam's ideologically driven guerrilla insurgency.

Today, pundits like to claim that U.S. mistakes in prosecuting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are due to a failure to study history. Yet the architects of the Iraq war would be quick to point out that they learned the lessons of Vietnam all too well. It was former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, after all, who led an effort to rebuild the military into a leaner, more nimble force suited to modern insurgency warfare. Rumsfeld sent in overwhelming force to Iraq, with the intention of crushing resistance within weeks, because he wanted to avoid a grinding, years-long conflict like Vietnam. It was the present, not the past, that Rumsfeld failed to understand -- that Iraqis' deep distrust of outsiders would lead to the development of a politically appealing insurgency, and that the reliance of powerful Iraqi interests on government paychecks that evaporated after the invasion would encourage anger at Iraq's American "liberators."

McNamara, and Rumsfeld for that matter, demonstrate that even the best and the brightest can fail miserably when they ignore opposing voices or accept only the evidence that fits their preconceptions. That's something the current administration, which has yet to find a challenge it doesn't think it can meet with the application of a little brainpower, should keep in mind.

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