Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of James G. Blight & Janet M. Lang's The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Dec 14, 2007 2:08 pm

Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of James G. Blight & Janet M. Lang's The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

[Jeremy Kuzmarov is Assistant Professor of History, Bucknell University.]

By his own admission, Robert S. McNamara bears a large share of responsibility for some of the most horrific developments of the late 20th century. These include the U.S. firebombing campaign over Tokyo and escalation of the Vietnam War where he advocated a kill-ratio policy measuring military progress based on statistical proficiency in enemy kills. Humbled by the gravity of human suffering caused by his actions, McNamara is no longer the brash, self- confident technocrat depicted in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. Well over 80 years old, he is today somber and reflective; willing to concede to past mistakes. He has also been open to dialogue with America’s former Cold War adversaries in the hopes of promoting mutual understanding and drawing lessons from history to prevent future conflict.

Based on personal interviews from Errol Morris’ documentary The Fog of War, for which they served as advisers, James Blight’s and Janet Lang’s book offers a retrospective on McNamara’s career, including his efforts to recast himself as a “peace activist” in old age. Blight and Lang are both professors of International Relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute, and helped to coordinate a series of conferences bringing Cold War statesmen from around the world together. McNamara draws several important moral lessons from these conferences, which the authors recount. The most important is for policy-makers to empathize with their enemy. According to McNamara, it was precisely a lack of this quality on the part of American policymakers that resulted in war. Rather than attempting to understand Vietnam’s long historical struggle for independence from foreign domination and rule, he and his contemporaries viewed Ho Chi Minh as a mere pawn of Moscow (and the National Liberation Front as a pawn of Hanoi), leading to the stubborn pursuit of what he now considers wrong-headed policies.

Among the other pivotal lessons is the importance of proportionality in the waging of war, which Washington repeatedly violated, and of the need for caution in policy decisions where millions of lives are at stake. According to McNamara, policy-makers should also learn to be self - critical. He claims that John F. Kennedy was a model in this respect, as he had devised a plan for withdrawal from Vietnam prior to his assassination (whether he was actually going to enact this plan, and under what circumstance, remains the source of continued debate among historians, which Blight and Lang recount).

From a critical vantage point, McNamara’s ruminations do not appear to be all that profound. The point about the need for cautious reasoning among those who make policy is elementary – though the authors do make a point that it has been ignored by the current administration in Washington. So is the importance of proportionality in war, which is a centerpiece of the Geneva conventions outlawing indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The first lesson about empathy appears to be obvious as well. With regards to Vietnam, the teach-in and anti-war movements, which McNamara dismissed so cavalierly while in office, had long emphasized the nationalist character of the Vietnamese revolution and its roots in anti-colonial struggles against the French. State Department insiders simultaneously characterized the National Liberation Front as “the only truly mass based political party in the country” because of its appeal to nationalist sentiments and support for land reform. Why is it then such a profound revelation, as the authors’ make it seem, for McNamara to finally come to terms with these facts 40+ years too late - after he helped to “literally pound Vietnam (and later Laos) to bits,” in the words of journalist and historian Bernard Fall (who covered the French and U.S wars in Indochina), through aerial warfare and chemical attack?

To their credit, Blight and Lang’s book raises awareness of the important ongoing efforts to promote reconciliation among former policymakers and critical reflection on historical developments. They are not rigorous enough, however, in subjecting the lessons that McNamara adapts from his career to critical scrutiny. They praise his tenure as head of the World Bank without qualification and are too accepting of the fog of war hypothesis, which posits that his actions can be rationalized by political pressures and the exigencies of the time. The authors themselves note that McNamara still believes that Vietnamese revolutionary leaders bear central responsibility for the suffering of their own population during the war. During a June 1997 conference, he offended the former Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam by accusing him of being opposed to a peaceful diplomatic settlement. “When the bombs were falling,” the Minister responded, “there was complete unity between the leaders and the people…There could be no negotiation under the pressure of bombing……. Even in the conference, we see that the US understands very little about Vietnam.

Equally as interesting as this tidbit and the lessons that McNamara adopts in the book, are the ones that he does not. McNamara, for example, does not fundamentally question (or even consider) the political ideology that led the U.S. into Vietnam and the pitfall of trying to export liberal-capitalist values that are not necessarily universal. Nor does he attempt to link Vietnam to the wide array of humanitarian abuses promulgated by the U.S. during the Cold War, or contest American claims to global power. The authors should reflect on these omissions and compare McNamara’s reasoning to humanists and scholars who have drawn far different conclusions from recent history. This could have allowed for a broadened and more rounded debate about the legacies of Vietnam and U.S. foreign policy conduct in the 20th Century to which McNamara was so intricately connected. While McNamara’s life story and personal reflections are worth recounting and interesting, his should not be the final word. Especially in considering the hideous atrocities carried out under his orders, which cannot so easily be lived down.

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