"Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it", wrote George Orwell, the noted author of 1984.
Robert Strange McNamara, the most controversial Secretary of Defense of USA before Donald Rumsfeld bungled his way into Baghdad died two days ago.
His arrogance in dismissing critics of the Vietnam War summed up the hubris of a nation so sure of its military, moral and geopolitical footings that it went to kill needlessly tens of thousands of people in countries it hardly knew.
Robert McNamara admitted so in his own writing in his 1995 memoire (“the war was wrong, terribly wrong.”) and in his celebrated interview in the must see 2003 documentary: The Fog of War produced by Errol Morgan.
One time he went to Harvard to give a speech. Students protesting against the Vietnam War surrounded his motorcade. He got on to the top of his limo and shouted at the students: “I am smarter and tougher than you.”
He later greatly regretted. At his farewell lunch at the Pentagon he wept to the horror of those present. He wept not over his leaving but over his mistakes in believing the war was just.
The lessons of McNamara’s over confidence in using “scientific”, quantitative methods in running wars and formulating foreign polices are well-documented.
Yet, events subsequent to the Vietnam war, now again in full display in Iraq and Afghanistan show each generation makes similar mistakes all the time thinking it is smarter than the one before.
Hubris is not an American monopoly. Every major power in history at one time or another acquired it.
Winning the hearts and minds of those one wish to “conquer” remains just a slogan. Each power thinks firepower alone can do it. Yes, perhaps for a while. But as Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan invaded by Russia, Eastern Europe under Soviet Union and many in earlier centuries show clearly, power comes from the barrel of the gun, as Mao so cleverly put it, is an illusion in the long run. Just ask the Chinese leaders who are having to deal with unhappiness in Xinjiang and in Tibet. How long can you keep an unhappy people down with guns?
McNamara in many of his post War writings and interviews kept saying: “We must see the world from the eyes of the other side.”
And of course each generation ignores the lessons of history.