Field Marshal McNamara

Field Marshal McNamara

Mini Teaser: Managing the Pentagon and managing wars are two different things, a lesson Robert McNamara learned the hard way.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

McNamara prevailed. Shortly thereafter, the folly of "McNamara's War" ensued. His efforts to manage the war-regulating the tempo of escalation, limiting the range of operations, even selecting targets to be bombed-failed in every respect, except in ratcheting up the level of violence. Defeat and humiliation were the eventual result.

Fresh from the agonies of Vietnam, American officers embraced the conclusion that failure there came as a direct consequence of civilian meddling. Success in future wars required allowing the generals a free hand.

The agonies of Iraq might tempt today's U.S. military to reach a similar conclusion-to attribute their predicament to the meddling of Donald Rumsfeld, another uber-manager, who like Robert McNamara, evinced little regard for military advice and fancied himself playing the role of field marshal.

But to charge McNamara and Rumsfeld merely with botching their respective wars-which they did-is to miss a larger point. Both McNamara and Rumsfeld subscribed to a common proposition: They confused the management of the Pentagon with the management of war. They assumed that taming the former put you in a position to control the latter. Both were disastrously wrong, although others end up paying for the consequences of their error.

In his execrable apologia, McNamara complained that "we often did not have time to think straight."3 More accurately, he chose not to think. Analysis displaced thought. In today's Pentagon where fantasies of making war manageable persist among soldiers and civilians alike, that failing continues to be evident.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

1 Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam(New York: Vintage, 1996), pp. 6.
2 McNamara, In Retrospect, pp. 207.
3 McNamara, In Retrospect, pp. xvii.

Essay Types: Book Review