BEST, BRIGHTEST, AND BADLY MISTAKEN
Well, he’s gone. Not that We were ever going to get much more out of him. In the matter of Vietnam he apologized in that way that Beltway biggies do when they’ve been caught and can’t get out of it: a quickie Sorry and then you’re ‘ready to move on now’. Perhaps by now he’s found out just how out of sync that strategy is with Reality (capital ‘R’). He’s reached that level of things where consequences can’t simply be spun away. He’s not the only Beltway biggie on Reality’s list, I bet. And to think that most of them think they’ve had a good day if the media give them a puff or at least pass over them in silence.
At a Mississippi college in 1967 he said “The real threat to democracy comes from undermanagement … To undermanage reality is not to keep it free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality.”
I think this is a key element in the Beltway ‘expert’ mentality. It’s worth looking into because We are in Our present grave condition only after long decades of ‘expert’ management (assisted, of course, by pols who know from nothing except whether this or that scheme will help keep them in office, pandering to the interests of their favorite advocacies or of their biggest PAC contributors).
It’s not the basic idea of ‘managing’ that’s bad. Hell, up until the Hippies and Boomers threw it out the window a major task of an adult life was precisely to manage and sustain a ‘self’ so that you could conduct a life. Managing your own self, a form of being a Master and Commander, was one of the primary tasks of an individual and an adult. And a Citizen.
That of course when overboard when the Boomers gleefully and fuzzily insisted that any attempt to shape your own reality was unnatural; and that if you just ‘let it all hang out’ then you would be natural – and that was groovy, if not ‘good’ (which sounded too much like being ‘judgmental’, man).
So ‘managing’ isn’t in itself bad. Hell, it was one of the more impressive lessons of World War Two, listening to Londoners and Brits standing upright amid the ruins of this or that block or neighborhood and quietly saying “we’ll manage”. And that they all had to do their bit.
Neither Boomers nor victimists want to hear that. The Boomers didn’t want to admit that there is a profound and lethal darkness deep down in human history, and the later victimists don’t want to admit that the individual self, formed in a certain character and anchored in a network of others similarly formed, can effect and sustain a robust resilience in the face of challenge and ‘pain’ and – hell – even ‘trauma’.
But the ‘management’ in which McNamara excelled wasn’t so deep as all that.
He was a technician, though on a grand scale. In World War Two he was on the air staff that planned and executed the firebombing of Japanese cities. He didn’t invent it, but he certainly carried the idea to a truly world-historical level of efficiency and success, as it were.
Nor was he a robot. He opined, if memory serves, to his commanding general that if America were to lose the war “we’ll all be prosecuted as war criminals”.
But – and this didn’t really do him any good in the long run – America won the war. Tojo, Yamashita, and the Nuremberg bunch all got prosecuted. McNamara had lived the dream of every war technician, and there would be no adverse consequences for anything he’d done. Which is perhaps the most lethal adverse consequence of all.
But it seemed to work at the time, and up he went, all the way to the top of the Ford Motor Company, and then Secretary of Defense (back in the days when those titles really really meant something big).
Nor is it a bad thing to want to “shape reality”.
But much depends on what you mean by ‘shape’ and what you mean by ‘reality’. If your initial definitions aren’t large enough to encompass what’s actually going on ‘out there’, then you’re going to be bringing a checker-board to a game of Vulcan chess, and he only had to look at the TV back then to see that Spock held huge and fateful wisdom for all cocky and super-bright humans.
If by ‘shape’ you mean simply manipulating reality by force of will or brute might, or by imposing your own vision on everybody involved, then you’ve put a hole in the boat before you’ve even left the harbor. He had just participated in a war that demonstrated clearly that Hitler’s idea of the supremacy of enlightened will – as Hitler imagined he had in superabundance – and military efficiency were not only not adequate to subdue the human species, but were also bound to ignite the opposition of sizable chunks of that species.
And if by ‘reality’ you simply mean static and inert ‘quantities’ that will stand still while you ‘shape’ them with your overpowering brilliance and force, then you have indeed brought a checkers mentality to a game of Vulcan chess. And so the ragged myrmidons of Uncle Ho and General Giap outfoxed McNamara although he kept reciting the mantra that “every quantitative measurement we have shows that we’re winning this war”. Except that We weren’t.*
And if your ‘reality’ in a democracy doesn’t include the considered opinion of The People, then in this regard too you are no longer ‘shaping’ reality; you’re just floundering around in your own little chunk of it as you have chosen to define it – leaving the rest of the variables to pretty much operate independently of your vision and your plans. And when you get to the point, then, where ‘reality’ is operating pretty much independently of you … well, individual persons with that problem wind up being diagnosed or becoming bankrupt. (Which should ring a few contemporary bells, no?)
But before there was a John Rawls to provide benefit-of-philosophy to the volatile concept of ‘elites’, and an ideological feminism to gleefully and arrogantly dismiss all those who ‘just don’t get it’, there was McNamara: sure that he could master the board and bring the game to a brilliantly successful conclusion if the lumps would just stay out of his way.
I can’t help but think that his example – or at least the parts his Beltway descendants chose to notice – inspired decades of advocates, lobbyists, ‘experts’ and the pols who ‘trust’ them, starting in the early 1970s. Whether the social engineers on the far Left who think that the most fundamental warp and woof of society and culture can and must be deconstructed and reconstructed in the twinkling of a revolutionary eye or on the far Right who think that those who already have money (and are willing to send chunks of it Beltway-bound to PACs) are the best and only gentlefolk to be trusted with money … well, you can see where things might go. Have gone.
He didn’t see that “emotion” had any role to play; only “reason”.
Of course, “emotion” is a vital characteristic of human beings; and quite an asset, if well managed by an individual. But then if individuals have not been raised to manage their emotions well, harnessing them and deploying them wisely and maturely … well, then you get crowds and mobs, precisely those lumpish things that McNamara (and the revolutionaries of the Left and the bigwigs of the Right) cannot trust to think or – even – to speak.
And there are many historical conceptions of “reason”. In the materialist and positivist Modern world, “reason” has been reduced merely to the process of abstract and calculating thought. In the Postmodern world it has been ‘exposed’ as a chimera, a dangerous fantasy that merely lures the mass of unsuspecting lumps who ‘just don’t get it’ into contributing to their own ignorance and oppression.
But there was a time when “reason” was a much fuller and richer concept. For Aristotle and Aquinas, say, it meant the ability of the human mind to grasp the true nature (and ‘shape’) of human existence, and order all human activity – individual and communal – toward coming into greater harmony with that ‘reality’, that Reality (capital ‘R’). Acting 'rationally' wasn't a 'male' sin of ignoring emotion; it was a constructive participation in the widest and deepest rhythms of human experience.
McNamara’s “reason” was far thinner and shallower than that. And when one of the last but most robust of the Camelot courtiers, Ted Sorenson, can bleat that McNamara was one of the most brilliant men he had ever known … that simply confesses the apparently perennial shortcomings of the Beltway elites: they are far less competent in grasping Reality than they want to think (or want Us to realize).
So here We are. Vietnam long gone, but its lessons mis-learned or ignored because fresh cadres of the Beltway elites have now saddled Us with larger and deeper defeats: in Iraq, in the economy, in the very fundaments of Our society, Our culture, and Our constitutional polity.
Ah, Robert … we hardly knew ye; but then you hardly knew yourself, though you thought you did. What you didn’t know is what shaped you and your legacy. Alas for you and for Us.
But now that appears to be a problem for far too many of Us. We are The People – and We need to be. The Beltway garden has run to seed – and become a jungle.
Put down the donuts. Time to weed the garden. And shape it into a reality more in line with the Constitutional vision. And maybe with Reality itself.
Back to the future – before the future turns its back on Us.
*I’m not going to get sidetracked into the ultimately irrelevant question of whether American military strategy actually won every set-piece ‘battle’. War is fought for larger goals to which the military competence is merely an instrument. And none of those large goals – fuzzy and poorly thought-out in the Vietnam War – were met; just the opposite.