Downsides of Efficiency: A Lesson from Vietnam

                               Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

                             Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

The war in Vietnam spanned my childhood. It ended April 30, 1975, less than two months before I graduated from high school. Thus, watching Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War, differed from seeing documentaries on other wars. I have lived experience, memories, of what it covered. I remember not just events, but also my understandings, perceptions, and feelings. In some ways the series peeled back layers and revealed to me how reality was so different than what I perceived. Yet it also helped me understand why I had the thoughts and feelings I did at the time.

Numerous times I have told people the following: “On the evening news they had charts listing the killed and wounded on each side. Since there were not fronts in Vietnam, like the wars I read about in books, the body count was what I used to discern who was winning. We almost always won the numbers war on the evening news.” Looking back, I have thought of this as a child’s simplistic view of things. It was not. Body counts were the means of measuring progress in the war, not just for the little boy Mark Baker, but also for the Secretary of Defense.

Before becoming Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara had led Ford Motor Company. He brought a technician’s mindset to his role. At Ford he used numbers as the basis of evaluation. He sought to improve efficiency so that the numbers would improve. So too in Vietnam, in his mind an efficient war would be a successful one. He needed numbers. If he could not measure well, he would be unable to improve performance. Therefore, to do better in the war, the U.S. needed to do a better job of measuring. McNamara ordered subordinates to look for ways to quantify more and more things. An aide told him, “but you can’t count what really matters, how the Vietnamese people feel.” What were their concerns, loyalties, hopes, etc.? The focus on numbers actually contributed to the U. S. paying less attention to these important elements. One of the lines that most stood out to me in the documentary was a comment someone made on body counts. “When you can’t measure what is important you make important what you can count.”

This focus on numbers and the negative implications flowing from that continued long after McNamara left the Department of Defense. For the U. S., it was a war of numbers. Patrols were sent out not to take territory from the enemy, but to attract fire and engage in a firefight to kill the enemy. U. S. soldiers would fight to drive the enemy off a hill, leave, the enemy would come back, and they would do it again. It was not the hill that mattered, it was the body count. The focus on numbers trickled down to the soldiers; they felt it. So, from privates on up, the way to impress those above you was getting numbers. That encouraged erring on side of killing innocent people rather than the opposite. It fostered lying and fabricating numbers. One pilot told about how the person looking at the pictures of what they had bombed always came up with ways to find things to count and to make them sound impressive—any building or vehicle damaged was turned into a success against something of military significance.

Because the numbers were always dramatically better for the U. S., as a child I had thought, “the other side is going to run out of people. We will win.” And actually, my simple means of evaluating was not that different from strategists in the defense department. They calculated a kill ratio that if achieved and continued, would mean that N. Vietnam would not be able to keep up and replace those killed. (The Pentagon’s assumption was wrong. As they were wrong about so much.)

“When you can’t measure what is important you make important what you can count.”

I wonder where else we are pulled away from what is truly important because it can’t be quantified and measured? How does it happen in education, ministry, business, social work, etc.?

This is not to say that measuring is totally wrong. For instance, if the number of people viewing my blogs drop dramatically, reflecting on why might be beneficial. But if I became too focused on numbers I would be pulled away from what is important. For some on the internet, all that matters are numbers. They focus their energy on discerning the best click bait. All they care about is quantity.

It reminds me of what I say in class. “Machines are pure technique, but much of life is becoming machine-like. Values which humans are told to honor and to live by are the values of the machine: organization, standardization, precision, rationalization, systematization, efficiency, and artificiality.

And other values are to be despised, as destructive of efficiency: individuality, spontaneity, variety, diversity, the natural, freedom, and subjectivity.

So what is wrong with the rule of technique? It is not that organization, precision, and efficiency are always bad, and spontaneity and diversity are always good, but if through our unquestioning devotion to technique the first list crowds out the second list then something valuable is lost. It is hard for us to be fully named, to be in interdependent relationships.”

Similarly, it is not that quantifying and measuring are bad, but they become problematic when they distort our perception of what is most important. “When you can’t measure what is important you make important what you can count.”

As in so much else, here too let us center on Jesus. First, Jesus offers a model of focusing on the truly important. Second, the loving embrace of Jesus provides a place of security from the shaming voices that scold us for not quantifying more, for not prioritizing efficiency and the “success” it produces.

Posted on July 3, 2018 .