Monday, July 6, 2009

Robert McNamara: June 9, 1916 - July 6, 2009

Robert S. McNamara died today at the age of 93. McNamara was the first non-Ford to ever be named president of the Ford Motor Company when he took the post in November of 1960. But he did not hold that post long. JFK offered McNamara his choice of heading treasury and defense and after some initial deliberation, McNamara accepted the role of Secretary of Defense.

McNamara served in the Air Force under Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, who headed the B-29 program in WWII. McNamara was integral in revising American bombing tactics, being a big proponent of the statistical analysis approach which led to the carpet bombing of numerous cities during the war. Basically, they moved from high-altitude precision bombing, to low-altitude, nighttime incendiary raids. The effects on Japanese cities, largely constructed of wood, were devastating. Estimates have Japanese casualties during LeMay's bombing campaign at over one million dead. As McNamara said in Errol Morris' superb, Oscar-winning documentary, "Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," that bombing was far more deadly than either of the atomic bombs. In fact, McNamara relays LeMay telling them that if they lost, they would all be tried as war criminals. When asked by Morris, "The choice of incendiary bombs, where did that come from? McNamara answered:
I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is: in
order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night, by firebombing
or any other way? LeMay's answer would be clearly "Yes."

"McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing 100,000, burning to
death 100,000 Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to
death a lesser number or none? And then had our soldiers cross the beaches in
Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you're
proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?

"Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up
Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama.
Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is
roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the
equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los
Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear
bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command.

Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the
people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not
proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to

I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.—Japanese War
was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history ? kamikaze pilots,
suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to
that time ? and today ? has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it,
"the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb,
shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?

LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war
criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war
criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if
his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you

McNamara is probably most associated with the Vietnam War, which was often referred to as "McNamara's War." By all accounts, while a proponent of the war to start with, McNamara eventually grew to realize the war was unwinnable. It was that change in thinking that led McNamara to fall out with then-President LBJ, leading to McNamara resigning or being asked to resign (depending on who you ask).

Regardless of your opinion on McNamara, and there ain't a soul who lived through the Sixties without an opinion of the man, his passing marks the end of a life that greatly affected the course of this country.

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