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199. Youthful folly (V)

Robert McNamara was known, in the slang of the time, as a “whizz kid”; he belonged to the punch-card IBM generation that came to prominence in the wake of Sputnik: his two best-known roles were at Ford and as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. McNamara was, to mix modern slang with the old, a “virgin whizz kid”; he was not a chad—or what 1950s teenagers might have called “beefcake”. When McNamara arrived at Ford there were a handful of graduates on the board; and, supposedly, this was why Ford was in trouble. The time had come for men with IBMs and management know-how to save American industry with scientific insight. “These college kids, they have notions, I tell you, Pat. Hell, give ‘em a go I say...”

McNamara was chosen to serve at Ford through a computerised admission process. The whizz kids were selected in a whizzy way, yet McNamara lied on his psychological test. The test asked: “Would you prefer to be a coal miner or a florist?” McNamara, as a red-blooded male, put “coal miner”; yet, by his own admission, he actually worked as a florist during his college vacations. His revealed preference was for flower arranging, not coal mining. When confronted with the “scientific” test, he lied; he knew the kind of signal he wanted to give to other men, the real men at Ford: he was a chad coal miner, not a virgin florist—yet chads are not worried about “what it looks like”, prissy propriety and polite lies.

At Ford, McNamara worked as a kind of marketer; he researched the types of people who bought VWs in the US (people like McNamara, as it turned out; college professors and assorted pinkos) and investigated the safety of Ford products; he became an advocate for seatbelts after his team dropped skulls down the stairs at Cornell University—an impact test. Unfortunately, for the most part, McNamara was not dropping skulls down stairs; whizz kids worked on the forerunner of the PowerPoint presentation. He represented the genesis of our “data-driven” culture that justifies decisions in slick graphics—a system that forgets that the whizz kids lie on their own tests.

McNamara was surprised to be selected as Secretary of Defense; he admitted that he knew little of war, aside from statistical work on strategic bombing during WWII. Indeed, he had really wanted to go back to a quiet life at Harvard, but Ford’s money perverted his heart. Consider that McNamara was most proud of implementing seatbelts at Ford. His reputation was really made in non-essential safety functions, not in ruthless liquidation of Ford’s competition. Would this man win the war in Vietnam?

At the Pentagon, McNamara IBMised the war: units were assessed by the number of Vietcong they killed, a supposedly “rational” approach to war. McNamara achieved a Soviet-style incentive system: in the USSR, so they say, chandelier factories were assessed by weight produced—so a factory would turn out one or two impractically heavy chandeliers to meet targets. Vietnam became home to America’s own perverse incentives; units confected kills to hit statistical goals. McNamara also attempted to mobilise the intellectually subnormal—a cohort of soldiers that became known as “McNamara’s morons”. From a statistical perspective, they were underutilised manpower; but in practice they were useless or dangerous. With a naïve faith in technology still visible in today’s pseudo-technocrats, McNamara thought videotaped instruction could make up for subnormal IQ.

Per Apocalypse Now, the Americans needed the warrior-monk Kurtz; they got the affable academic McNamara, a sweet man who worried about “hearts and minds”. This was a man who thought about seatbelts, not victory; he was a florist, not a killer. There is a place for seatbelts and flower arrangement, but not in the profitable end of the automotive industry or in a bloody war. Today, McNamara’s whizz kids are still with us—though they are more stupid than McNamara—and their fingerprints are all over many disasters, from Afghanistan to Covid-19.


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