By the mid-1960s, the American military had turned war-making into a thoroughly corporatized, quantitatively oriented system that sociologist James William Gibson astutely calls “technowar.” The philosophy behind it was simple: by combining American technological and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities, the Pentagon meant to guarantee ultimate success on the battlefield. The country’s unmatched military capability would allow it to impose its will anywhere in the world, with the war machine functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.
This mindset was embodied most fully in the person of Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968. As a Harvard Business School professor, McNamara had designed statistical methods of analysis for the War Department during World War II, most famously systematizing the flight patterns and improving the efficiency of the bombers that decimated German and Japanese cities.
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In Vietnam, the statistically minded war managers focused, above all, on the notion of achieving a “crossover point”: the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace. After that, the Pentagon expected, the communist-led forces would naturally give up the fight — that would be the only rational thing to do. What McNamara and the Pentagon brass failed to grasp was that the Vietnamese nationalists, who had long battled foreign invaders in pursuit of independence, might now view warfare as a straightforward exercise in benefit maximization to be pursued in a “rational” manner and abandoned when the ledger sheet showed more debits than credits.
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Entire units were sometimes pitted against each other in body-count competitions with prizes at stake. This helped make the bodycount mindset even more pervasive, lending death totals the air of sports statistics. “Box scores” came to be displayed all over Vietnam – on charts and chalkboards (also known as “kill boards”) at military bases, printed up in military publications, and painted as crosshatched “kills” on the sides of helicopters, to name just a few of the most conspicuous examples. “We had charts in the mess hall that told what our body count was for the week,” recalled one veteran. “So as you passed through the chow line you were able to look up at a chart and see that we had killed so many.” ... The practice of counting all dead Vietnamese as enemy kills became so pervasive that one of the most common phrases of war was: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”