Robert McNamara and Moral Arithmetic

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07/06/2009 3:05 PM |

32a7/1246907098-robert_mcnamara.jpgJFK and LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, died this morning at 93. On the one hand, McNamara (with, yes, Kennedy’s support or encouragement) number-crunched us all the way into the Vietnam War without regard for what we were doing there, politically or tactically. On the other hand was one of the very coolest heads in the room during the Cuban Missile crisis, and The Fog of War, for all of his equivocations and self-justifications, was probably more productive, if less cathartic, than an act of contrition could be (though he performed several of those, too).

Conversations on McNamara’s legacy have invariably involved weighing his zeal in sycophantically waging an unwinnable war even after he knew we couldn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be fighting it, against his guilt and good works afterwards. It’s some fairly complicated moral arithmetic — and this seems, ultimately, appropriate: McNamara spent World War II and the 60s calculating actual and potential loss of life — the numbers in the six, seven, eight, nine figures, but never more than figures on a chalkboard or in a memorandum. Japanese civilian deaths at the end of WWII; American and Vietnamese civilian deaths due to air and chemical warfare; acceptable and unacceptable scenarios for nuclear showdowns with the Soviets.

The lesson of Robert McNamara has to do with American idealism and arrogance, but it also has to do with the dangers, exacerbated by the Bomb and by subsequent fearsome technologies, of forgetting that wars are fought by and against people.