Rafe on Fallows on McNamara

United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNa...

Rafe Coburn: “James Fallows said the following in 1995 when Robert McNamara wrote his memoir expressing his regrets about the Vietnam War:

In the cycles of life, the desire to square accounts is natural, but Robert McNamara has forfeited his right to do so in public. You missed your chance, Mr. Secretary. It would have been better to go out silently, if you could not find the courage to speak when it would have done your country any good.

And today Fallows adds:

My tone then was harsher than I would be now. Perhaps that’s just because I’m older; perhaps because McNamara has now died; perhaps because he had fifteen more years to be involved in worthy causes, mainly containing the risk of nuclear war or accident. But mainly I think it is because of Errol Morris’ remarkable 2003 film The Fog of War, which portrayed McNamara as a combative and hyper-competitive man (in his 80s, he was still pointing out that he had been top of his elementary-school class) but as a person of moral seriousness who agonized not just about Vietnam but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II, which he had helped plans as a young defense analyst.

I think that there’s another reason for Fallows to leaven his tone, which is that it was not too late for McNamara to help his country. Had the Bush administration taken McNamara’s memoir to heart, the war in Iraq could have been avoided. Had President Obama done so, maybe we would be taking a different course in Afghanistan. Rarely does a week go by where we don’t hear about unarmed drones blowing up dozens of Afghans or Pakistanis. We are still failing to take the lessons McNamara learned too late to heart. But because he did eventually talk about the mistakes he made, we do have the opportunity to learn.”

via rc3.org.

What do you think? Were McNamara’s mistakes unforgiveable? Is there any sense yet that we learn from history?


Null Device Potpourri

Every so often, when I get around to checking in at The Null Device, I am amply rewarded. Recent interesting goodies include:


Would You Let This Girl Drown?

Human Rescue Plan/Sean Penn

Nicholas Kristoff: “…In a thoughtful book published this year, The Life You Can Save, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University … explores why we’re so willing to try to assist a stranger before us, while so unwilling to donate to try to save strangers from malaria half a world away.

…There’s growing evidence that jumping up and down about millions of lives at stake can even be counterproductive. A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life.

“The more who die, the less we care.” That’s the apt title of a forthcoming essay by Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who has pioneered this field of research.

Yet it’s not just, as the saying goes, that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. More depressing, appeals to our rationality actually seem to impede empathy.

For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

Perhaps this is because, as some research suggests, people give in large part to feel good inside. That works best when you write a check and the problem is solved. If instead you’re reminded of larger problems that you can never solve, the feel-good rewards diminish.” (New York Times op-ed)