I’ve started reading H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty.
As some of you may know, McMaster is the new national security advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump. I chose the title of this post because, besides sounding great, the term “warrior-scholar” pretty much describes the professors and cadets that I met on my one visit to West Point. The American system of government (including its national security apparatus) has its faults, but a good chunk of Americans certainly do try to engage in everyday performative expressions of the (admittedly still aspirational) ideals of their republic.
Here are two paragraphs in Dereliction of Duty that caught my eye:
McNamara’s Whiz Kids were like-minded men who shared their leader’s penchant for quantitative analysis and suspicion of proposals based solely on “military experience.” Many of them had worked in think tanks and research corporations, such as RAND, and they were eager to apply their techniques to the problems of the Defense Department. Taylor recalled that “cost-effectiveness charts appeared on all the walls, and a whole host of requests for information and advice flooded the JCS.” The two most important offices were Paul Nitze’s International Security Affairs (ISA) and Alain Enthoven’s Systems Analysis divisions.
Enthoven quickly became McNamara’s point man in establishing firm civilian control over the Defense Department. His flair for quantitative analysis was exceeded only by his arrogance.70 Enthoven held military experience in low regard and considered military men intellectually inferior. He likened leaving military decision making to the professional military to allowing welfare workers to develop national welfare programs. Enthoven suggested that military experience “can be a disadvantage because it discourages seeing the larger picture.” He and many of his colleagues believed that most people in the Department of Defense simply tried to “advance their particular project or their service or their department.” He was convinced that “there was little in the typical officer’s early career that qualifies him to be a better strategic planner than… a graduate of the Harvard Business School.” He used statistics to analyze defense programs and issues and then gave the secretary of defense and the president information needed to make decisions. Enthoven saw no limits to the applicability of his methods.
It’s almost as if McMaster had read William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts. These two paragraphs highlight the dangers of privileging narrowly defined ways of “knowing”; especially when dealing with complex social systems as typically the case with policymaking. McNamara, for some reason, imagined that he could tame Vietnam solely by faithfully following the numbers.