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Behind McNamara's "no comment" on Iraq


In a recent interview with US News & World Report, Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara explained that he doesn't feel it that it's appropriate for him to comment on the conduct of the war in Iraq. But it's not too hard to guess what he probably thinks, based on his own experiences and the conclusions he has drawn about them. In his unique 1995 book In Retrospect, McNamara listed eleven lessons from Vietnam that are very much worth reflecting on.

[Addendum. Shortly after these comments were written, McNamara reversed his stand and said precisely what he thought about Iraq.]

McNamara wrote,

It is sometimes said that the post-Cold War world will be so different from the world of the past that the lessons of Vietnam will be inapplicable or of no relevance to the twenty-first century. I disagree... There were eleven major major causes for our disaster in Vietnam:
  1. We misjudged then--as 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 saw in them a thirst for--and a determination to fight for--freedom and democracy. 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--and we continue to do so today in many parts of the world.
  4. 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...
  5. We failed then--as we have since--to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology equipment, forces and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people's movements. We failed as well to adapt our military forces to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
  6. 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 U.S. military involvement... before we initiated the action.
  7. After the action got underway and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course, we failed to retain popular support in part because we did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did. We had not prepared the public to understand the complex events we faced and how to react constructively to the need for changes in course as the nation confronted uncharted seas and an alien environment. A nation's deepest strength lies not in military prowess but, rather, in the the unity of its people. We failed to maintain it.
  8. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Where our own security is not directly at stake, 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 own image or as we choose.
  9. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action--other than in response to direct threats to our own security--should be carried out only in conjuction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
  10. 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 an imperfect, untidy world.
  11. Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues...
These were our major failures, in their essence. Though set forth separately, they are all in some way linked: failure in one area contributed to or compounded failure in another. Each became a turn in a terrible knot.

Pointing out these mistakes allows us to map the lessons of Vietnam, and places us in a position to apply them to the post-Cold War world.

It is fair to say that McNamara's lessons remain relevant today, because they remain unlearned.


U.S. News & World Report
December 22, 2003
The Clarity Of McNamara
By Dan Gilgoff

As defense secretary for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Robert McNamara was both an architect and a critic of the Vietnam War. When he left in 1968--he says he doesn't know if he quit or was fired--McNamara was appointed president of the World Bank, a post he held until 1981. In the new film The Fog of War, McNamara, 87, talks about applying the lessons of Vietnam and other struggles to the 21st century.

Any guilt over Vietnam?

It's not a question of guilt. The question is: Can we draw lessons from Vietnam to avoid more tragedy? My belief is we can. One lesson is we should not use our power unilaterally. There wasn't one of our major allies with us in Vietnam.

The film makes that point, which could be taken as a rebuke of President Bush.

That was not my intention; much of the film was developed before Bush put his program forward. But if somebody wants to say "McNamara says this, therefore he believes this about Iraq," that's for them to draw the conclusion.

You've turned down dozens of requests to comment on Iraq.

It would be irresponsible for an ex-secretary of defense to comment on an Iraq war when a couple hundred thousand Americans are at risk and the president is engaged in delicate negotiations.

In the film, you say "rationality will not save us." Could it have helped in Vietnam?

No. A problem with Vietnam was that major issues were not adequately discussed, issues on which senior officials held disparate views. Those issues were not brought to the table because it's human nature to avoid confrontation. One of the issues not discussed by the Kennedy or Johnson administrations was the domino theory--that Soviet and Chinese communists would use Vietnam as a steppingstone across East Asia. Had it been fully debated, there would have been serious questions about whether it was correct.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000136.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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