The Institutional Logic of War

July 20, 2009 at 5:21 am

| Gabriel |

We lost Robert McNamara last week, although I was too busy to blog it at the time. (Organizations and Markets was more timely). McNamara began as an academic, educated at Berkeley and working at Harvard. During WWII he advised on strategic bombing and later on went to work at Ford, rising through the ranks until being tapped by JFK as Secretary of Defense. From there he went on to have an important role shaping the World Bank. McNamara was interesting in part for his particular accomplishments but mostly for what he represented as an elite moving between the heights of academia, military, industry, and international NGOs. He was the very best and very brightest of the best and the brightest; one of those Harvard faculty whose rule William F. Buckley judged inferior to persons drawn at random from the phone book; the mid-20th century technocratic liberal consensus made flesh and sent to dwell among us.

I highly recommend that any social scientist interested in organizations, elites, or politics rent the documentary The Fog of War, in which McNamara describes his experiences in the 40s-60s at Harvard, the Air Corps, Ford, and Defense. In all of these areas McNamara rigorously applied the methods of systems analysis and operations research, treating organizational problems as technical engineering problems where measurement and mathematical analysis are the tasks of the manager. The film is organized as a series of lessons he offers drawn from his own life, but I suggest that the really interesting way to view the film is to treat his experience as data but get some critical distance from his own interpretation of it.

McNamara is thoroughly penitent, almost flagellantly so, about the moral aspects of his decisions. However he is thoroughly convinced of the technical wisdom of his decisions. In particular, his position on the Viet Nam war seems to have been something like “if I couldn’t have won that war then nobody could have and since I couldn’t win it then I should have put my foot down and insisted that we not get into the war in the first place.” At no point does he consider the argument, even for purposes of rebutting it, that it might have been smarter to treat the war as a counter-insurgency campaign waged over the control of territory and populations rather than a war of attrition waged over resources.

Consider two books that together make this argument, one of them by a sociologist (and a dove) and the other by a historian (and a hawk). James W. Gibson’s The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam describes the McNamara/Westmoreland phase of the Viet Nam war in all of its bureaucratic absurdity, which reminds me of nothing so much as the Jonathan Pryce character in the Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Hence the notorious obsession with body counts, or better yet, ratios of body counts. However it was worse than that. For instance, one infantry division ran a scored competition where the junior officers competed on the basis of a formula where (among other things) a captured enemy machinegun or mortar counted for 100 points, a captured enemy tactical radio 200 points, and a wounded American negative fifty points.

The Pentagon Papers reveal an obsession with using strategic bombing to disrupt North Viet Namese imports and supply lines from the North to forward NVA units and the VC. These documents show formulas demonstrating that if the enemy consumed so many tons of supplies per day, and we disrupted their supply lines such that they could not ship a quantity equal or greater to that quantity, then mathematically the enemy eventually had to lose. However the theory was that long before such attrition reached its actual mathematical solution, the enemy would extrapolate the function and surrender. Gibson writes that “For the Americans, the question became one of estimating when the foreign Other would recognize U.S. technical superiority and consequently give up all hopes of victory.”

A key component of this was aerial bombing, which was not so much tactical or strategic as symbolic. In WWII we leveled entire German and Japanese cities with aerial bombing, but we dropped an even larger quantity of bombs in Indochina — mostly in wilderness and rural areas (often leafleted in advance with evacuation warnings). In theory this bombing was targeted at enemy units and supply lines, but Gibson argues that we often had no real idea what was below the canopy and were basically just blowing up huge batches of countryside (and more than a few peasants) for symbolic effect, to send what he sarcastically calls “bomb-o-grams,” reminding the enemy in case he had forgotten that, yes, the American military was indeed backed up by the largest economy in the history of the world.

Gibson does not explicitly limit his critique of the war to the McNamara/Westmoreland era and I think it’s fair to say that he’d probably agree with McNamara’s recent assesment of the war as intrinsically immoral and unwinable, but I think it’s still telling that his attention focuses on 1965-1968. For the last phase of the war you can consider Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, which describes Abrams’ use of more traditional counter-insurgency doctrine and contrasts it favorably with the McNamara/Westmoreland strategy that Gibson calls “technowar.” Sorley argues that Abrams abandoned the use of hyper-rationality, attrition, etc and emphasized controlling populations and controlling territory.

You needn’t go so far as to agree with Sorley that the Abrams strategy was winnable to say that it was more suited (or perhaps, less poorly suited) than the McNamara strategy of treating Viet Nam like an assembly line at Ford or an operations case study at Harvard Business School. Assuming this mismatch is an accurate description, then the interesting thing is the transposition of an institutional logic of bureaucratic rationality from some domains where it work pretty well (academia, manufacturing, bombing Japan into the stone age, nuclear deterrence) to a domain where it is just flat out absurd (counter-insurgency).

Furthermore there is the issue that even outside of a comparative context, military doctrine is just plain interesting. Ian Roxborough had a 2004 review essay in Sociological Forum in which he argues that sociologists do not give enough attention to the military, and when we do we often treat war as an extremely abstract macro-historical problem or (as the DOD itself likes to hire us to do) as an organization with human resources issues. What we are less likely to do is focus on the main thing that the military exists to do, that is, use organized violence to coerce the enemy to our will. This is a key issue for organizational theory, and especially for institutionalism, because making war is organized around doctrine. The McNamara case described above shows the failure of importing doctrine to a situation where it really doesn’t work, but there are other interesting issues as well. For instance, how did the concerns of internal stakeholders promote the development of strategic air doctrine before WWII? Why was the Air Force so much more interested in the fact that nuclear bombs blow stuff up than in the fact that they also create firestorms? Why did the admiralty of the Royal Navy resist innovations like adapting gunnery to the waves that junior officers had developed? All of these are questions of military doctrine that are best understood by understanding the military as an organization that is subject to all the other pressures, constraints, and bounded rationality of any other organization.

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