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George Santayana was wrong

By From page A11 | July 10, 2014

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.

  1. We misjudged the geopolitical intent of our enemies and exaggerated the threat. A WMD-less Saddam Hussein was no threat to us.
  2. We viewed our enemies in terms of our own experience and saw a desire for democracy that may not have been there.
  3. We underestimated nationalism. We’d be greeted as liberators.
  4. 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.
  5. We overestimated the capability of high-tech weaponry and had no strategy for winning hearts and minds. Stealth, bunker busters and De-Baathifacation.
  6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and fair debate over the pros and cons of war.
  7. After being hit with setbacks we lost the support of the people because we didn’t prepare the public beforehand. “Mission accomplished,” anyone?
  8. 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.
  9. 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?”
  10. We failed to acknowledge that in international relations, there sometimes are no immediate solutions. We may have to live with an untidy world.
  11. 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 [email protected]

Kelvin Wade

Kelvin Wade


Discussion | 4 comments

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  • Kendall WrightJuly 11, 2014 - 5:05 pm

    I don't think I've ever agreed with every single word you've written in a column--until today. Send 300 advisors to a "country" created by artificially-drawn borders that is populated by folks who don't give a damn about our ideas of democracy and freedom. Seriously? The last time we did that deeply affected my life 40 years ago and killed 58,000 of my closest friends. And the result was the same then as it wll be now. Well said, homie.

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  • rlw895July 11, 2014 - 9:10 pm

    KW: There is no chance, now, that Iraq will become another Vietnam. The forces we are sending are simply to protect our people in-country. We're no longer taking sides except to say we're against the new "Islamic State." We will have many allies there and won't have to do the fighting, to the extent there is any. Leading from behind has it's merits and may be Obama's great military policy contribution to the real New American Century.

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  • KelvinJuly 11, 2014 - 11:32 pm

    Kendall, I thought of you and your compatriots while reading the book and writing the column. It's astounding how we can keep doing this.

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  • rlw895July 11, 2014 - 9:06 pm

    We should thank McNamara posthumously for having the courage and integrity to admit his errors and spell them out for us so clearly. The Cold War was a driving factor in our foreign policy for a long time, and we really can't blame people for acting on the perceived threat. Same for the "war on terror," but people should still admit their errors. There's no shame in it. I too think Cheney never will, nor will he admit how much he misguided president Bush II. And he doesn't have the good grace to brood in silence.

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