The Vietnam War has come to be something of a foundational myth - an example the moral implications of which are beyond reproach, almost - on much of the left, and even the centre, I'd guess. There can't be many Britons, for example, who think that Harold Wilson did the wrong thing by refusing to send British soldiers when asked to by LBJ, and when arguing about other military interventions, despite how much Vietnam gets used, the retort is always 'it won't be like Vietnam', rather than 'what's so terrible about Vietnam?'. I'm not sure how much that is because Vietnam was a totally unmitigated disaster, although you'd have to guess that plays a role, rather than because of how central Vietnam was to the formative political experiences of a whole generation, and so, as a consequence, appears all over that generation's literary and cinematic output, which then means that a whole other generation gets socialised into the myth. Like I was, I suppose. I've read 'Bright Shining Lie' and 'In Pharaoh's Army', and, more importantly I think, seen 'Apocalypse Now', 'Born On The Fourth Of July', 'Platoon', and 'The Deer Hunter'. So in that context, it was interesting to see 'The Fog Of War', a documentary based around a series of interviews with Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence from 1961 till 1968.
The film is structured around eleven lessons the director, Errol Morris, draws from McNamara's experience in the US Government, the US Airforce during World War Two, and working at Ford in between. McNamara clearly regrets decisions he took, or encouraged the taking of, whilst working for the first two of these organisations: maxim number five, "proportionality should be a guideline in a war", either prompts or is prompted by the thought that he, as an adviser involved in the firebombing of Japanese cities, committed war crimes, and he is clear that US involvement in Vietnam breached maxim number one, "empathise with your enemy", by seeing what the other side saw as a struggle of national liberation as the attempt to maintain a barrier against the spread of communism. Given the conventional wisdom on those events, I don't suppose that's particularly surprising. Neither are the content of the maxims: number two, extrapolated from his experiences during the Cuban Missile Crisis, partly either reflects or is mirrored by work in game theory which has drawn heavily on the experience of nuclear confrontation, claiming "rationality will not save us", while number six, "get the data" is banal even for common sense, although, from McNamara's examples, more important than you might think.
The temptation, obviously, is to regard the lessons McNamara draws as having wider currency. It's not really one I'm prepared to resist, and, given the general terms in which they are articulated, it's one that he and the film explicitly encourage. Only the claim that rationality will not save us, which McNamara quite clearly means to be understood as relating to the use of nuclear weapons - he baldly states that it was a matter of luck, not judgement, that there was no nuclear war in 1962, saying that, amongst other things, Castro had not only told the Soviet Union that they could use the weapons in Cuba but that they should in the event of an invasion, despite both being rational and knowing it would result in the total destruction of Cuba - does not clearly have wider application. Given what I said here, for example, it's tempting to read maxim number nine, "in order to do good, you may have to be prepared to do evil" as alerting us to the occasional duty of neglecting to intervene whilst evil triumphs, for fear of the consequences of doing so, especially in light of McNamara's unwillingness to escalate the conflict in 1962, rather than the more conventional reading.
That's not the clearest one though, I think. Making judgements of counter-productivity and imprudence in morally charged situations can often both difficult and dangerous, because you need to be sure of what aim is not being realised, of what imperative is being violated. That means being sure both of the specific intentions of the actors involved, and of the possible moral limits to the achievement of those ends - because of a standing assumption that people don't want to commit obvious moral wrongs which, to be effective as a tool of criticism, needs to identify obvious moral wrongs - neither of which can always be easy.
In some cases, though, it's relatively easy. A significant strand of the criticism of both what is described as the War on Terror and the current Israeli occupation of the southern Lebanon seems to me to point out that they break maxims one, six, seven and eight - that they don't understand what the enemy is fighting for, that they lacked adequate intelligence, and that they lack the necessary openness to the possibility that the beliefs and reasoning they are fought on is flawed. That doesn't rule out the further criticism, that they are simply wrong and shouldn't be done because of that, of course. It has a kind of strength unavailable to the 'it's just wrong' critique if successful though, because it, immediately, without engaging in further moral argument, performs an immediate reductio ad absurdum: if you want to do x, why on earth would you do y, it demands. For example, why on earth would Israelis think that occupying the southern Lebanon was a good idea, when they did it for nearly twenty years, failed to destroy Hizbullah, and, only six years ago, were more or less agreed it was a pretty disastrous policy? Or that serious damaging the capacity of a state to act by devastating its infrastructure would be a good way of ensuring that it acted to disarm what is by all accounts a well-equipped and trained militia force?
The problem is, of course, that these critiques aren't always paid attention to. Ways of avoiding them are developed: mostly obviously, perhaps, the denial, by essentially denying their humanity, of the opponent's possession of a complex set of motives, and so the possibility of empathy with them. Think of the claim that Hizbullah presents an existential threat to Israel, for example, and the uses to which that is put. Interestingly, the last maxim that Morris drew from talking to McNamara is that human nature doesn't change, which he apparently sees as an ironic comment on the rest of the maxims, since it shows that the mistakes which McNamara made are mistakes that we will keep on making, that, effectively, the maxims are useless because they will continue to be ignored. Maybe we should just go back to chanting.