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Only the good die young. Mastermind and architect of the Vietnam War and bombing savant extraordinare Robert McNamara (1916-2009) died yesterday, aged 93. Long before Dick Cheney blended the executive branch of corporate America with boosterism of the military industrial complex, McNamara had already blazed this infamous trail.
Something of a madman, with a cold, calculated approach reminding of the cunning “evil genius” persona out of a bad sci-fi novel, McNamara’s career path was ably profiled in the wonderful documentary Fog of War. He emerges as a man without much feeling, whose decision-making employed pure logic. McNamara appeared to lack even a hint of empathy or intuitive sense.
McNamara moved from Ford to the Defense Department, an architect of cold war who commissioned nuclear strike survival manuals and saw the economic benefits of arms races and missile proliferation. He went on, appropriately, to head the World Bank. McNamara was the archetype of the man in the gray flannel suit.
There is the suggestion, made explicit in John Ralston Saul’s take on McNamara in Voltaire’s Bastards, that the man was the technocrat par excellence. Something mentioned in a recent obit at The Atlantic.
This is certainly clear. McNamara represented the culmination of “instrumental rationality”; a pure strategist and thinker without much of a sympathetic bone. One hesitates to suggest he was emotionless…but he was clearly unemotional. Mechanical.
In the future, it is possible we will have machines make clear, logical decisions about the lives of hundreds, thousands and millions without a care for their health and welfare, sending them to die for some grandiose cause. For now, we must be content in the fact that there are people willing to fulfill these roles. More technocrat than intellectual, with a kind of self-assured arrogance that allows them to believe in the rightness of their own boundless ambition.
Robert McNamara was one of these people.
Words of wisdom from a bumper sticker I saw the other day. Seems particularly relevant at the moment…