Obituary: Robert McNamara: The lessons of Robert McNamara

Regrets, he’s had a few

When I was invited to appear on “Nightline with Ted Koppel” back in 1990 to debate Robert McNamara (who died yesterday at 93), I thought I’d have an easy time of it. Little did I know that McNamara was entering a phase of his life where he would begin to be more introspective about war and its consequences.

Needless to say, the fact that he wasn’t as hawkish about the war as I had expected threw me off guard a bit. I didn’t do that bad, but I won’t be putting it on YouTube anytime soon.

Five years after our debate, McNamara published his book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”, which included these observations that later became the basis of the 2003 documentary “The Fog of War”:

1. We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.

2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.

3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.

4. Our judgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.

5. We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine.

6. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.

7. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.

8. After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.

9. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgement of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.

10. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.

11. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

Shahed Amanullah is Editor-in-Chief of altmuslim.com


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