Whoever gave Robert S. McNamara his middle name has proven to be as prescient as they were prankish. "Strange," indeed, is the former secretary of defense, who while refusing to remove his blinders claims to have seen the light.
The first glimpse we got of this McNamara trick was a few years ago when he wrote his autobiography, whose title shall not appear in this space. Raising his profile even higher, Errol Morris recently released his highly praised documentary: "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara." Some of these lessons are cliches and at least five are totally unnecessary. McNamara should have heeded Lord Georges Clemenceau's post-World War I critique of President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points: "God gave us 10."
McNamara's first lesson is that the United States should "empathize with your enemy." He cites the defusing of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis by empathizing with Nikita Khrushchev's need to get something in return for removing Soviet nuclear weapons from the island. John F. Kennedy, of course, removed U.S. weapons from bases in Turkey.
McNamara's empathy did not extend to Fidel Castro. When visiting Cuba recently, McNamara was shocked that Castro was willing to order a nuclear strike against the United States and face certain obliteration of his island-nation. "Pulling the temple down upon your head" was a sacrifice McNamara even now is incapable of perceiving as the price Castro placed on Cuban independence from U.S. domination during the Cold War.
Similarly, McNamara was blind to the Vietnamese drive for independence. He pursued the Vietnam War as anything but the civil war it was. He insisted that the Vietnamese, unless bombed to bits, would swoon willingly as pawns of the Russians or, failing that, the Chinese. "Haven't you read a history book?" a top Vietnamese leader scolded McNamara when he visited the Southeast Asian country decades later. The fiercely proud nation had fought off domination for centuries, he said, mainly against the Chinese.
This U.S. ability to empathize with the enemy that McNamara recommends appears to be self-limiting. It works mainly when the enemy is culturally proximate - that is to say, European. When the enemy is non-European, McNamara's empathy, as with Cuba and Vietnam, breaks down. Race, religion and ethnicity, unfortunately, still matter in American foreign policy. Strangely, McNamara fails to perceive them as fatal flaws in the pursuit and execution of U.S. foreign policy.
His lesson might be amended to read: "Empathize with your enemy - without regard to race, ethnicity or religion."
Ignorance of the culture of undeveloped countries is a hallmark blind spot of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, central Asia and the Middle East. McNamara belatedly admitted that such ignorance crippled his pursuit of the Vietnam War and led to defeat.
In his book McNamara voices sorrow for his misguided role in the war efforts in the administrations of presidents' JFK and Lyndon Johnson. "We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." The cost of McNamara's misdeeds is 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers, hundreds of thousands wounded by hot steel, and 3.4 million dead Vietnamese, to say nothing of the orphans, widows, the broken and the displaced on both sides.
McNamara took great pride in unleashing the high-tech, bloodthirsty war dogs of General Dynamics, IBM and Raytheon against the scantily clad and poorly armed Vietnamese peasantry. Asked in 1965 about his view of the struggle becoming "McNamara's War," the defense secretary replied, "I'll have you know I am proud to have my name associated with this venture, proud of it, I tell you."
In addition to misreading the Vietnamese motive for resistance, he admits that he helped lead the nation blindly into Asia, a terra incognito, with "limited and shallow" analysis without benefit of proper information, good intentions or a coherent plan. Still, with the blinders on, he insists "these were some of the best years of our lives."
With the devil now thumbing through his c. vita, McNamara cries easily when discussing the war he has so much to cry about. In Morris' documentary, McNamara surprisingly admits to criminal bloodletting extending back to World War II. As an assistant to Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, he was part of the "mechanism" that recommended the incineration of some 100,000 Japanese in a single fire-bomb raid on Tokyo. "If we'd lost the war," McNamara said, "we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals...[We] were behaving as war criminals." The United States, of course, won World War II, and though it lost the Vietnam War, Americans got to write the history books and escape legal reckoning.
The squandering of American lives, resources and the nation's credibility continues in Iraq under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has learned nothing from McNamara's 11 points. But the clock is still ticking.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.