In war, the only certainty is that nothing is certain. If that is cliché, it’s only because it is too true to go unmentioned. The fog of war, combined with human unpredictability, can create outcomes or present opportunities that no one could predict. McNamara mentions, seemingly in passing, that he “learned very early” to never say never.
Although this might seem like a plea for optimism, I interpret it more as a reminder that we shouldn’t give up before we try something. The St. Nazarie Raid. Operation Entebbe. These were thinly-veiled suicide missions, if they were veiled at all. However, they still worked. Never say never.
If this lesson is useful in war, it’s even more useful in preventing it. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, most of cabinet, including President Kennedy himself, didn’t believe the Soviet Union would remove their missiles without the use of military force. Llewellyn Thompson disagreed. Kennedy trusted Thompson’s judgment. As a result, the superpowers avoided nuclear war. Never say never.
If the United States is considering military action, it would be wise to remember that the best way to win a war is to avoid it. It would be stupid beyond belief to “not bother” seeking a diplomatic solution, or to go about it half-heartedly or disingenuously, simply because success is unlikely. There are too many lives on the line to do anything less than our best to avoid conflict, especially in a nuclear age.
Never say never.
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