Jul 07 2009

Eleven Lessons on War from Robert S. McNamara

I grew up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and in the final decades of the Cold War. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and proxy wars in Latin America, Africa and Asia kept the genuine threat of a worldwide nuclear war part of everyday life in a way that we don’t see as much today. Even though there are still enough nuclear weapons to make our planet inhospitable to most life except cockroaches, and keeping in mind the potential of Taliban or Al Queda fanatics acquiring nukes, the threat has definitely receded from most current-events watchers’ field of vision. But many legacies of the Cold War do remain with us even today. In some ways, the terrorist threat and the foreign conflicts we see today in Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere are just part of the next phase from a continuum from that era.

Robert McNamara was a walking legacy of the Cold War during and after the USA’s involvement in Vietnam. The documentary Fog of War was an extremely compelling story of a tragic and remorseful soul who nonetheless seemed to have come to terms with his involvement and his place in history. While the 11 lessons from the film are a bit vague out of context, the 11 lessons from the Vietnam War he provides in his memoir seem very relevant for today’s world when we talk of war and relations with adversarial nations. The lessons (as listed in his Wikipedia entry):

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.

While the conflict in Iraq would seem to repeat many of the errors identified above, I’m heartened that the Afghanistan mission where Canadians have sacrificed much seems to have avoided some of the worst mistakes. I believe we went in with a fair understanding of the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries. The mission has been pursued with eyes wide open as to the cultural aspects; the gulf is wide, but not unbridgeable, and universal principles of human rights and the desire for freedom are genuine objectives of both the soldiers in the field and the people we are trying to protect. And it has broad support in the international community as well as a UN mandate.

We may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world. But that doesn’t mean we have to remain on the sidelines when we have the power to intervene in a just cause.

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