A Tale of Two SecDefs – a modern Greek tragedy

On Nov. 9, 2006, President
Bush, in his response to
a question
from a reporter, denied parallelism between the
Vietnamese and Iraq Wars. He pointed
out several ways in which the situations were different, including a
military versus a volunteer military.
Also, during the Vietnamese War, opposition to the war often
turned into
opposition to the troops participating in it; today, even people who
oppose the
war profess support for the troops. In
addition, the President cited as a difference that Iraq is now led by
elected government and has a written constitution.

But, in addition to US public
disillusion with the war, there is at least one other coincidence in
which the
two wars are similar. Secretary of
Defense Robert McNamara took the brunt of the blame for the Vietnamese
just as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is blamed for mistakes in planning
prosecuting the Iraq War. Prior to
their wars, both men were recognized as brilliant strategic thinkers. McNamara and his "whiz kids" had successfully
applied systems
analysis principles to enhance the competitive position of Ford Motors
his tour as the head of that corporation.
Rumsfeld had a long and distinguished career in the Federal
including a prior stint as Defense Secretary (under Pres. Ford), and in

Curiously, as Defense
Secretaries, McNamara began his first term and Rumsfeld his second with
peacetime (considering the “cold war” to be peacetime) objective of
making the
military less costly to operate. In
both cases even the results of those turned catastrophically bad,
although in different ways.

McNamara and
his Assistant
Secretary for Systems Analysis, Alain Enthoven, took on the military’s
weapons acquisition system. Under
President Eisenhower,and his Defense Secretary (Charles Wilson, former
head of General Motors), each branch of the military had acquired its
own weapon systems,
with relatively low level contract officers empowered to decide whether
terminate or continue a contract. Often,
manufacturers constructed demonstration prototypes of
their weapons, rather than just proposing a design concept. Instead of choosing only one of competing
prototypes for production, a service branch could authorize more than
competing system to move on to a production phase. This
resulted, for example, in the Air Force paying for the
development of the Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and the
paying for the similar Jupiter IRBM.
Under President Kennedy, McNamara made all major weapons
pass through the Department of Defense’s Office of the Assistant for
Analysis. OSA examined the Services
justifications for weapons contracts, the military need or mission for
weapons system, how effective it would be in carrying out its mission,
estimated its total life cycle costs, and what alternatives could
the same military need. This approach
led, for example, to abandonment of liquid fueled ICBMs (Atlas and
because their poor ability to survive a Soviet first strike made them
not only
ineffective as a retaliatory deterrent, but actually could have
contributed to
an escalation of a conflict into a US or a Soviet nuclear first strike.

But McNamara had a conspicuous
and embarrassing failure when he attempted to use this method of
weapons system
analysis to get the Navy and Air Force to combine their requirements
for a
fighter aircraft so that a single design could accomplish both
Services’ needs,
but got instead an aircraft that performed poorly in both missions.

When he began his stint as
Defense Secretary for Pres. Bush, Rumsfeld had an agenda of getting the
military leaders to use information systems to do more with less. This is said to have influenced his thinking
regarding the plan for the invasion of Iraq, and his asking the
military to
come up with a plan that used fewer troops for the attack and none to maintaining order after we destroyed the existing government.

an ancient Greek tragedy, two brilliant and capable leaders were
brought down by their over-reliance on their own brilliance.

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