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by William H. Benson

August 9, 2007

     Here are the lessons we have learned:

  1. We misjudged the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries, and we exaggerated the dangers to the U. S. of their actions.
  2. We viewed the people and leaders 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.
  4. Our misjudgments reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area.
  5. We failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of wining 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. 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. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess but, rather, in the unity of the people. We failed to maintain it.
  8. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. 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 with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
  10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions. At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.
  11. We failed to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal with the complex range of political and military issues. With this organizational weakness, we thus failed to analyze and debate our actions with intensity and thoroughness.

     I have recorded these eleven lessons, taken more or less verbatim, from pages 321 to 323 of Robert S. McNamara’s book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, which he published in 1995. McNamara had served as Secretary of Defense under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

     He was at the head of the Pentagon on August 2 and 4, 1964 when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the American destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy. Three days later on August 7, Congress passed a resolution, which gave President Johnson the power “to repel any armed attack and to prevent further aggression.”

     McNamara saw, and was part of, the debacle in Vietnam as it unfolded. Thirty years later, in hindsight, or “in retrospect,” as he called it, he could admit to the mistakes that he and others made and then list the lessons learned. Hindsight is always 20-20 vision.

     Of course, most striking are the parallels between the failures in Vietnam in the 1960’s and those the current administration made in Iraq. Certain of McNamara’s words jump out: “we misjudged,” “we failed,” “we underestimated,” “our profound ignorance,” “we are not omniscient,” “there are no immediate solutions,” “an imperfect untidy world,” “we do not have the God-given right,” and “not merely cosmetically,” when referring to multinational forces. McNamara’s admissions are so pertinent today and will be.

     Perhaps, someday a cabinet officer from the Bush administration will admit to these eleven lessons to describe their disaster in Iraq, but they refuse to do so today.