To commemorate the first American Vietnam Veterans Day on March 29th, I reviewed the lessons of war selected by Errol Morris from his interview of Robert S. McNamara titled The Fog of War. I also looked at the lessons listed by McNamara himself in his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Though I am by no means a fan of McNamara, his lessons resonate with me much better – but not perfectly – than those of Morris. McNamara’s lessons are:
1. We misjudged the geopolitical intentions of the Viet Cong, the DRV, China, and the USSR, and exaggerated the dangers to the US of their actions.
2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in our own experience.
3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
4. We were profoundly ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area.
5. We failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high-tech military equipment, forces, and doctrine.
6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of becoming involved in large-scale military engagement in Southeast Asia.
7. We did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did. We failed to maintain national unity.
8. We failed to 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 erred in taking unilateral military action not supported by multinational forces and the international community.
10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions.
11. We failed to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of issues at hand.
For armchair commanders wanting more, I recommend Dereliction of Duty by H.R. McMaster (the current U.S. National Security Advisor) and A Failure in Generalship by Lt Col Paul Yingling. Then, you could tackle Clausewitz’s masterpiece On War (very dense) or go for Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War. Notably, McNamara lamented the lack of guidance about waging war. An excellent treatise on that subject is Nicholas Rengger’s Just War and International Order. It is criminally unfortunate that no one in Washington DC or at the Pentagon across the river seems to have digested any of these books.