Eleven lessons of War

Robert S. McNamara’s lessons of war:

We and you ought not pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.


1. Empathize with your enemy

“We must try to put ourselves inside their skin, and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts which lie behind their decisions and their actions”

McNamara gives two examples – winning the Cuban Missile Crisis by understanding Khrushchev’s need to appear as the savior of Cuba, and analyzing the failure of the Vietnam War as a misunderstanding of the enemy’s intent and scheme. While the Vietnamese saw the war as a civil war, a struggle for independence, and considered themselves free of Chinese and Russian influence, the US perceived the war as a domino effect of Communism, a Cold War thesis. This latter thesis colored US strategic and political actions, which ultimately proved to be ineffective.

2. Rationality will not save us

McNamara argues that human fallibility can lead to terrible destruction – one man endorses the deployment of nuclear weapons. It might be wiser to temper power of such magnitude with proportionality (#5) and support of allies with comparable values (#8).

3. There’s something beyond one’s self

Wise and virtuous leaders must be accountable to the greater society. A leader must be a philosopher. Actions taken must be in the interest of the common good.

4. Maximize efficiency

Analyze performance and redress operational guidelines to better achieve objectives. Loss of force and effect must be accounted for. Clearly defined objectives are necessary for victory.

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war

“[I]n order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night, by firebombing or any other way. LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘Yes’ . . . Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.”

6. Get the data

With #4, the idea is to adopt an analytical rather than political approach to strategy. Why do certain circumstances, events and phenomena occur? What is the ultimate effect of our strategies, especially in regard to losses? Contingencies and modifications must be effected in order to achieve success.

7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong

McNamara cites the Gulf of Tonkin events, as well as misunderstanding the essential nature of the conflict in Vietnam (see #1). As an aside, clearly this has major applications for contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; while the Taliban are a nationalist group which seeks to establish a Pashtun state, US politicians claim to be fighting global Islamist group Al Qaeda (source), even though the latter are not represented in Afghanistan in any appreciable way. As with Vietnam, this misunderstanding of conflict leads to ineffective and self-defeating strategies.

8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

McNamara argues that if other nations with comparable values do not support your cause – you may have dubious moral or political grounding.  Accordingly, strategies and political objectives must be re-examined in order do what is right.

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

An invocation to Machiavelli – McNamara questions whether it was immoral to fire bomb Japan and kill millions of civilians, considering that tens of thousands of American lives were spared from a bloody invasion. Leaders must be willing to do what is necessary (no matter the cruelty) in order to preserve the society and to benefit the public good.

10. Never say never

11. You can’t change human nature

Rationality and reason has limits. Temper power with council.

“We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

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