The Death of a Technocrat

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

-Bob Dylan

The hand that signed the paper felled a city
-Dylan Thomas

Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara

Synchronicity: My girlfriend had never seen The Fog of War, the fascinating Errol Morris documentary portrait of Robert McNamara as he reflects over his life as a statistical analysis expert during World War II, as the head (briefly) of Ford Motors, as Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense during the Cuban missile crisis and the early days of Vietnam, and as head of the World Bank. We got the film from Netflix more than a week ago, but were away last week for the Shakespeare festival in Southern Utah, and only got a chance to watch it last night. McNamara was already into his eighties when it was filmed, and Jane marveled at how much younger he seemed, how lucid and animated. “Is he still alive?” she asked me. “I’m actually not sure,” I admitted. Well, he was. Until yesterday.

Superficially, McNamara’s career boasts a string of successes beyond belief. He was known in the early, pre-Vietnam years as a “whiz kid”, a genius technocrat out of Harvard Business who made cars safer and bombs deadlier with his mastery of numbers, his gift of analysis. Closer inspection shows someone who engineered a series of blunders as he moved from one institution he had no experiential knowledge of to another. He gave Ford the Edsel, and helped bring America its most traumatic and divisive war of the modern era. But he was blind to the source of his failures because of his ideological commitment to abstract planning, number-manipulation, and managerialism. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things lately as a result of reading Kevin Carson’s Organization Theory. I had to stifle a guffaw when I heard McNamara boast about how he transformed Ford Motors by bringing in his carpetbagging comrades from business schools. You see, Ford had fewer than 10 college graduates among its managers and directors (remember that this is the company which virtually invented the whole industry- and without the help of Harvard!): I’m sure Carson would have a laugh at that one too. McNamara is the “Man of System” famously written of by Adam Smith and (in a more mean-spirited vein) much of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” fits him like a “T” as well: “You that hide behind walls/you that hide behind desks”; “You play with my world/like its your little toy”. In these aspects McNamara’s career is an exemplary one for the twentieth century (”I could pick a better century out of a hat!” says a character in the movie Sabrina- the one with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, not the one with Greg Kinnear). For further analysis of McNamara along these lines I suggest John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, a book I don’t entirely agree with but well worth reading nonetheless. And of course, The Fog of War. Watching it, even a committed anarchist such as myself must feel some sympathy with the man, who on the one hand has genuinely tried to do good in the world and cannot understand why he has wrought evil, and on the other has the candor to admit that he is a war criminal- or would be, if his side lost.

I have not read any of the mainstream obituaries. I’m sure most will be politic. Many will be laudatory. Lew Rockwell.com was characteristically, and I think justly, acerbic:

Robert Strange McNamara, a brilliant bureaucrat and important member of the US power elite, has died at 93. A key planner of the terror bombing of civilians in WWII and of the terrorist war on Vietnam, he later continued his service to the empire as head of the World Bank.

and:

If the prosecution of war criminals by the United States was ever taken seriously, McNamara would have been one of the leading candidates for the gallows. Instead, as we have been informed, the man died peacefully in his sleep, further evidence that, indeed, there is no justice in our world.

Is this a bit much? I don’t think so. Bernie Madoff just got the proverbial 99 years (or whatever) and would have been strung up and pummeled with stones like Mussolini if let loose amid the angry mob- and yet he never killed anybody, but merely proved the old saw about fools and their money. McNamara on the other hand- well, just watch the video. So I’ll leave off with another Dylan quote from “Masters of War”, even though I don’t think McNamara was a master of anything.

You may also like...