Lesson 1: Empathize with Your Enemy

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their actions and goals. Empathy can help one understand what one’s adversaries want, allowing everyone to come to a mutually satisfying outcome without the use of military force and its attendant death and destruction. McNamara’s first lesson is to empathize with your enemies.

In the film, McNamara relates how empathy won the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wished to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. With Soviet cargo ships bringing the final supplies to activate the missiles, President Kennedy and his advisors had little time to decide a course of action. The discussion that followed operated under the assumption that the United States would not be able to remove the missiles without the use of force. As luck would have it, diplomat Llewellyn Thompson had lived with Khrushchev when Thompson was U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Thompson believed Khrushchev would avoid war so long as he could go to his people with some sort of victory. Thompson was right. Kennedy promised, amongst other things, not to invade Cuba, a promise Khrushchev used to claim victory.

Empathy can help with our present day foreign policy as well. In Afghanistan, the United States has failed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. We cannot win their allegiance unless we understand their history, their culture, and their hopes and dreams. This requires empathy.

North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un is a young man with much to prove. He saw Axis of Evil-mate Saddam Hussein overthrown and executed. He saw the U.S. help overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, who relinquished his WMD program. And he sees a bunch of nations with nuclear weapons telling him he can’t have nuclear weapons. Kim’s saber-rattling makes more sense when we empathize with him. Certainly this will make more room for a non-violent solution than “He’s a crazy, evil dictator with nukes!”

Empathizing with your enemy is Lesson 1 for a reason. If we do not try to walk the proverbial mile in the shoes of others, conflict and unnecessary death are all but inevitable, no matter what else we might do or what other precautions we might take.

Jump to a lesson:
Lesson 1: Empathize with Your Enemy
Lesson 2: Rationality Will Not Save Us
Lesson 3: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self
Lesson 4: Maximize Efficiency
Lesson 5: Proportionality Should Be a Guideline in War
Lesson 6: Get the Data
Lesson 7: Belief and Seeing Are Often Both Wrong
Lesson 8: Be Prepared to Re-examine Your Reasoning
Lesson 9: In Order To Do Good, You May Have To Engage in Evil
Lesson 10: Never Say Never
Lesson 11: You Can’t Change Human Nature


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