It’s pretty easy to label Robert McNamara a pessimist. He does say “I’m not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war,” and after all, he suggests, you can’t change human nature.
I don’t think his skepticism stems from a belief that human nature is evil. It’s closer to what my friend Erik told me in a discussion about Syria. It’s not that we are inherently violent. It’s that we are bad at making decisions and war is ALWAYS an option. I tend to agree.
The most important thing we can do is learn from whatever mistakes we make. Make a mistake once, but don’t make it again. We should also learn from the mistakes of others. History provides infinite resources for those looking to learn from others’ mistakes. Although analyzing and interpreting those mistakes can prove challenging, it’s better than charging into disaster, especially when nuclear weapons are involved.
We should also be reflective and understand all the different ways our decision-making process can be or become flawed. Knowing that we make mistakes and cannot understand the impossibly complex variables in fluid or dangerous situations, we had better do our best to stay out of those situations.
In the end, I don’t think McNamara is a pessimist. Even if we can’t change human nature, he does give us the tools by which we find can better alternatives and forge a better future. If he thought our species was doomed, he probably wouldn’t have bothered with this interview.
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