I recently read Robert McNamara’s meditative mea culpa on the Vietnam War, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.”
It’s especially relevant given the recent ISIS uprising in Iraq. McNamara was one of the most controversial and vilified figures in American government in the 20th century. While many parallels between Vietnam and the Iraq war have been drawn, McNamara’s 11 lessons from Vietnam are the most salient I’ve read.
Keep in mind that McNamara wrote this in 1995, but it’s easily applied to Iraq.
- We misjudged the geopolitical intent of our enemies and exaggerated the threat. A WMD-less Saddam Hussein was no threat to us.
- We viewed our enemies in terms of our own experience and saw a desire for democracy that may not have been there.
- We underestimated nationalism. We’d be greeted as liberators.
- McNamara thought our misjudgments on Vietnam were due to our ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the Vietnamese people. Ditto Iraq, Sunnis, Shia and the Middle East.
- We overestimated the capability of high-tech weaponry and had no strategy for winning hearts and minds. Stealth, bunker busters and De-Baathifacation.
- We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and fair debate over the pros and cons of war.
- After being hit with setbacks we lost the support of the people because we didn’t prepare the public beforehand. “Mission accomplished,” anyone?
- We’re not omniscient and we don’t have the right to reshape other countries in our image. The Bushies thought so goes Iraq, so goes the Middle East.
- Military action should be carried out in conjunction with the full support of the international community, not just cosmetically. Remember the “Coalition of the Willing?”
- We failed to acknowledge that in international relations, there sometimes are no immediate solutions. We may have to live with an untidy world.
- We simply underestimated the complexity of dealing with a protracted war while at the same time dealing with complex domestic issues.
It reads like lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Dick Cheney, with blood-soaked hands, recently wrote a column blaming Iraq’s disintegration on Barack Obama. Unlike McNamara, Cheney and company will never admit their error. But the reality is there’s enough blame to go around. Iraq and Afghanistan were bipartisan efforts.
So many of the current problems with U.S. prestige, international relations, the Department of Veterans Affairs horror show, veterans’ suicides, ISIS, Iran and so much more can be laid at the feet of people who didn’t internalize the lessons. That failure has cost limbs, minds and lives and nearly $6 trillion in war costs that we’ll be paying for a long time.
George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remembering isn’t enough. We must act. Peace.
Kelvin Wade is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Fairfield. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.