Arsenal Cemetery

In”The Fog of War,” the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary produced and directed by Errol Morris, interview subject Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during the Viet Nam war, offers eleven lessons:

1) Empathize with your enemy.

2) Rationality will not save us.

3) There’s something beyond one’s self.

4) Maximize efficiency.

5) Proportionality should be a lesson in war.

6) Get the data.

7) Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

8) Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

9) In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

10) Never say never.

11) You can’t change human nature.

McNamara: “Learn from your mistakes. Try to learn. Try to understand what happened. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles, and then mutual annihilation will commence.”

McNamara asked Castro, post Bay of Pigs, “Would you have recommended that Khruschev use the missiles?”

Castro responded forcefully, that he HAD told Khruschev to use them, admitting that Cuba would have been destroyed.

McNamara shook his head in incredulity, stunned to learn that this was Castro’s position.

“Pull the temple down on our heads? My God!”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (United Nations, September 25, 1961) “Unconditional war can no longer lead to unconditional victory. It can no longer serve to settle our disputes…Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”

McNamara: “The human race needs to think more about killing…about conflict. Is that what we want in the 21st century… I was part of a mechanism that, in a sense, recommended it.” Ninety-nine per cent of the city of Toyama was destroyed on McNamara’s watch. Omuta, a city the size of Miami, was 31% destroyed.

McNamara asks whether killing 50 to 90% of the population of 67 Japanese cities and then dropping two nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities was “proportionate.” (Lesson 5). He noted there is “no chance to learn from nuclear war…there is no learning power from such an experience. If we’d lost the war (WWII), we all would have been prosecuted as war criminals. What makes it immoral if you lose and NOT immoral if you win?”

Senator Scott called Vietnam, “The war which we can neither win, nor lose, nor drop…Like “W’s” “Bring ‘em on!”, LBJ is heard, in tapes made in the Oval Office, saying that he wants to “whoop the hell out of ‘em…kill some of ‘em.”

LBJ, after John Kennedy’s assassination, said, “You can have more war or more appeasement. I always thought it was bad to make any statements about withdrawing.”

McNamara: “We were wrong, but we had in our mind a mindset that led to that action. And it led to such heavy costs…we see what we want to believe.”

(Rule #1). McNamara related a heated conversation with the man who had once been President of North Vietnam, which occurred many years after the conflict. “We (the North Vietnamese) were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us. We weren’t the pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. We would have fought to the last man,”said the North Vietnamese leader. (Point #1).

LBJ: “We’re not getting out, but we’re trying to hold on to what we have. This is a nasty little war that has turned in to a nasty middle-sized war. But America wins the wars she declares. Make no mistake about that!”

McNamara (Lesson #8, “Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning,”): “What makes us omniscient? Do we have a record of omniscience? None of our allies supported us. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the rightness of our cause, we had better re-examine our reasons.”

When asked why he continued to support LBJ as he escalated the war, McNamara answered: “It was my responsibility to try to help LBJ carry out the office he thought was in the interests of our people.” McNamara won’t answer the question of whether he feels guilt at his involvement in sending 58,000 American soldiers to their deaths. When he left office, the nation had experienced 25,000 deaths in Vietnam, half the ultimate toll.

Robert Strange McNamara says, “What I’m doing is thinking it through in hindsight. We all make mistakes. We all know we make mistakes.”

Lesson #9 “(“In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.”) McNamara: “Human beings must stop killing other human beings. How much evil must we do to do good?”

McNamara (November 1, 1967):”The course we’re on is totally wrong. We’ve got to change it. I love this man. I respect him, but he’s totally wrong. At the end, Johnson and I found ourselves poles apart. Something had to give.”

McNamara was dismissed as Secretary of Defense and LBJ, on March 31, 1968, announced that his political career was over.

Copyright 2004 by Connie Corcoran Wilson, M.S. You may reproduce any or part of this article, as long as you give proper attribution, and you may read more of Connie Corcoran Wilson’s writing by ordering her book “Both Sides Now” from the web-site