The Best And The Brightest
Robert McNamara died today. McNamara was a smart guy, a business type who rose up through the ranks to run the Ford Motor Company after working at the Pentagon during the firebombing of Tokyo. Kennedy pulled a reluctant McNamara out of Detroit and back to the Pentagon in 1960, and he sought to manage it with corporate precision. But this precise structure and its focus on measurements crashed against the shoals of the Vietnam War. Night after night, McNamara would stand before the press in his rimless glasses, looking very much like Don Rumsfeld would decades later, talking of body counts and targeted airstrikes and victory, disassociated almost completely from the realities of the ground and the futility of the enterprise. If you've seen "The Fog of War" you know that the pressure certainly got to McNamara, and he understood his mistakes after the fact (though he never took full responsibility for them). He directed subordinates to write the study that would eventually become The Pentagon Papers, hoping that future generations would avoid the pitfalls that he and his colleagues did in Vietnam.
Part of the framing of "The Fog of War" as well as one of McNamara's later books was the 11 causes and lessons that he listed coming out of Vietnam. It's worth listing them here again.
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.
We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We saw in them a thirst for – and a determination to fight for — freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values….
Our misjudgments 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….No Southeast Asian [experts] existed for senior officials to consult when making decisions on Vietnam.
We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to …winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
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.
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….We had not prepared the public to understand the complex events we faced…confront[ing] uncharted seas and an alien environment. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, bur rather in the unity of its people. We failed to maintain it.
We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment 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.
We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action — other than in response to direct threats to our own national security – should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
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.
…We thus failed to analyze and debate our actions in Southeast Asia - our objectives, the risks and costs of alternative ways of dealing with them, and the necessity of changing course when failure was clear….
If this isn't an accusatory note toward the practitioners of American foreign policy during the entire post-war period up through today, I don't know what is. And although I'd like to think that some statesman could learn from these lessons and take America off such a self-destructive course, given the nature of the people who rise to power in this country I don't know if that's possible. Certainly McNamara's lessons represent the experience of a man who lived in the crucible and at least appears to have judged his actions against some moral set of precepts. But the peculiar dynamics of the political world, the need to act tough in foreign policy, the seeming inability for leaders to step outside themselves and view things through the lens of others, the narrow and incomplete renderings of history often at work, and of course the lure of money and power and the industry of war, resist politicians coming to any of these conclusions in the moment. We have so frequently bungled into conflicts, presuming our role in them when the other participants see it differently, making shortcuts while rationalizing ourselves as heroic, changing the rules if found to violate them, and controlling the message of moral rectitude rather than the actions. I find these cautions from McNamara to be crucially important, but even in my most optimistic moments I don't believe America is even wired to live up to them.
This is from The Fog of War, with McNamara talking about the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II:
Curtis LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.... But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
...Just to respond to this point about The Fog of War, which Robert Farley thinks "Morris let McNamara get away with far too much at too low of a price." Right near the beginning of the film, Morris inserts a line from McNamara about how you should always answer the question you hoped to be asked, not the question you were asked. This line colors the entire reading of the film. McNamara, for all his confessions in later life, was never a reliable narrator, and he tried valiantly to color his reading of history, leaving him blameless. It didn't work, and Morris knew it, so he presented the folly instead of attacking it. McNamara's lessons of war are important and can stand alone, but that doesn't mean I sympathize with him in any way. He spun until the bitter end. He earned his legacy of failure, and all the rationalizing and compartmentalizing in the world won't make a difference.