The Sunday Review: “In Retrospect”, by Bob McNamara

by Anthony Painter

“We must recognise that the consequences of large-scale military operations…are inherently difficult to predict and control. Therefore, they must be avoided, excepting only when our nation’s security is clearly and directly threatened”.

Strange as it may seem, I have never been a fan of the political memoir. They are invariably poorly written, historical distortions that lack any sort of reflection and are instead an exercise in settling scores and re-justification. They are aimed at cementing the author’s “place in history” rather than helping a nation to reflect on its history and improve itself in the process. They always fail in this objective. There is one noble exception: Bob McNamara’s In Retrospect: the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam.

The former secretary of defense – with personal responsibility for escalating the Vietnam war under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – could have fallen back on the domino theory or some such to defend his actions. Instead, right up front, he is brutally honest:

“We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why”.

Two things made me re-read In Retrospect. First, the launch of military action in Libya. Remember that Vietnam started as a smallish operation with 16,000 military “advisers” to train the South Vietnamese to defend themselves and ended with 543,400 troops in Vietnam by 1973. These things can acquire a deadly logic all of their own. Second, Tony Blair’s piece in the Wall Street Journal expanding an aggressive view of the role of the west in North Africa and the Middle East- failing to heed McNamara’s warnings.

The crusading Tony Blair deeply saddens me. Sometimes I pretend to myself that something went wrong. The liberal interventionist who acted with leadership and courage to defend the Kosovans and intervened in Sierra Leone somehow became a neo-conservative imperialist by 2003. His Chicago speech on liberal intervention in 1999 was the good Tony Blair, his relationship with George W Bush the bad Tony Blair. Unfortunately, it’s more complex than that. The signs were already there in 1999:

“Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end, values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society, then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer”.

This is Tony Blair at his very worst. It sounds good. It sounds plausible. But when you stop and think, it is anything but. He has a habit of exposing false dualism which is welcome, but then ends up conflating concepts that have importantly different meaning: liberty and security; interests and values; efficiency and social justice. Once these things are equated you risk having a government that focuses only on security, driven by interests alone, and pursues efficiency to the detriment of social justice. And you invade Iraq and create a chaos that leads to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Suddenly, you place yourself in a position where your ideology and conviction clouds your every judgement. Here is Tony Blair in the Wall Street Journal last week:

“The reason why Iraq was hard, why Afghanistan remains hard and why even a nation like Pakistan with established institutions is in difficulty is not because the people don’t want democracy. They do. They have shown it time and again. It is because cultural and social modernization has not taken hold in these countries, and proper religion has been perverted to breed fanatics, not democrats.

This does not mean that we should turn away from encouraging democracy there. Rather, we should do so with our eyes open and our minds fully aware of the need for a comprehensive agenda, thus ensuring that the change that occurs is what the people really want and need”.

Lesson two from In Retrospect is:

We viewed the people and leaders if South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We saw in them a thirst- and determination to fight for- freedom and democracy”.

In the Libyan rebels there does seem to be a genuine thirst for freedom and democracy – given a fair wind time will tell. But that is not why we are involved there. It is a humanitarian intervention. We are there to stop Libyans being murdered and displaced by their nation’s brutal leadership. The justification for action is important. We have a responsibility to protect human life – and there are non-democracies as well as democracies who are supportive of UN security council resolution 1973.

One of the distressing aspects of the Libyan action is that voices who had become largely de-legitimised on military intervention such as neo-cons like Richard Perle are suddenly using this action to wash away the tragic misjudgements of Iraq. And, I hate to say it, Tony Blair’s Wall Street Journal article was in that category. Interests and values are different and we will look like hypocrites at best if we do not understand that. We will be brutal imperialists at worst. Moreover, the right to life and to be free from persecution are universal. Democracy and access to free markets are not sufficient grounds for military invasion. They are not universal (though it would desirable if they were) and such action comes with a bloody price as we have discovered time and time again.

One day, I hope that Tony Blair will be able to write a memoir like Bob McNamara’s. I hope in his soul he has a deep need to go on a journey of reflective honesty.

McNamara’s book was published almost thirty years after he ceased to be secretary of defense. It is a noble and glorious legacy. One day I hope that Blair will find peace in honest reflection.

At the end of In Retrospect McNamara implores us:

“These are the lessons of Vietnam. Pray God we learn them”.

Painfully, we did not. Please God, may we do so as we consider the right course of action in Libya and elsewhere. If we do not, then we will be guilty of misery and injustice on a grand scale. That is anything but liberal and humanitarian.

Anthony Painter is a critic and author.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday Review: “In Retrospect”, by Bob McNamara”

  1. David Talbot says:

    It’s interesting to note that at the start you specifically mention “poorly written” political memoirs and then go on to write a piece that barely mentions the book you are meant to be reviewing, but iclude plenty about Tony Blair, Libya, Iraq and his 1999 Chicago speech. Robert McNamara is one of the most interesting, and important, US Defence Secretary’s of the modern era. I had hoped to read an insightful critque, not well-rehearsed arguments against the failed Blair Doctrine.

  2. Sorry to disappoint David. Felt it had new resonance after the Wall Street Journal article and given the Libya context- I guess not! Hope you dig out the book and enjoy and value it as much as I have.

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