Monday, 6 July 2009
RIP: Robert MacNamara
Another sixties icon has passed on, although one that perhaps not many flower children will want to mourn.
Robert MacNamara was the architect of the 'bodycount' in Vietnam, the Defense Secretary who applied the scientific management of the motor company to the US military machine. The war, he thought, boiled down to a simple balance sheet of bombs dropped against communists killed. In his defence he appears to have admitted in later years that he was wrong (or rather he admitted that other people were wrong and he went along with them out of loyalty) but I guess if I was a Vietnamese villager whose family were napalmed I'd still be a little cross with him.
Another legacy of his is still very apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan today: the guided bomb. When they were first invented the Navy and the Air Force were sceptical. They could buy ten ordinary bombs for the cost of one of the new fangled bombs, and as the new bombs weren't ten times better they considered them a waste of money.
MacNamara's systems analysis disagreed. The cost of a bomb, he thought, should include the cost of the plane that carries it, the cost of the pilot that flies it and the cost of the airfield that the plane flies from. Hence the addition of a guidance system doesn't just make a $10,000 bomb twice as effective, it makes a $2 billion aircraft carrier twice as effective.
So as America continues to try to bomb its opponents into submission, secure in the belief that all it needs to triumph is more and better bombs, let us remember for a moment the man who led the way.
p.s. seeing as the guy has just died I will say one good thing about him: he desegregated the US army. Not an insignificant move given the climate of the times.