Sunday, April 6, 2008

Admitting Mistakes

"I truly believe that we made an error not in values and intentions but of judgement and capabilities...I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did, and to learn from them...The ancient Greek dramatis Aeschylus wrote, "The reward of suffering is experience." Let this be the last legacy of Vietnam."

Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

I'm afraid America must be a disappointment for McNamara given the last few years. A part of the reason may be found in his separation of values and judgements. While the Vietnam and Iraq wars differ in many important ways, they both illustrate an arrogant idealism at work to remake the world in our image. We have demonstrated a stubborn inability to learn, no matter the scale of the suffering.

McNamara's "self disclosure" of mistakes is unusual for a public figure of his stature and engagement. More should follow his example. His confession is eerily, painfully revealed in Fog of War. Alone, McNamara answers questions. The book and film raise the problem of how long is reasonable before admitting mistakes and saying we are sorry. Is thirty years too long? How long does it take for things to become clear? When are admissions of mistakes most helpful? Does quitting count as an implicit admission of mistakes? Does confession time eventually run out? McNamara's double tragedy is that no one in power seemed to pay much attention.

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