A common aphorism suggests that “seeing is believing,” suggesting that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear. Only when we see something with our own two eyes can we be certain of the truth. Of course, this is wrong. Instead, “believing is seeing.” Our minds are not blank slates that record data. Our biases and beliefs color our perception, changing our interpretation of what we see. McNamara’s advice is to understand that belief and seeing are often both wrong.
As an example, McNamara walks us through the Tonkin Gulf Incident. On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol craft. Two days later, the Maddox and the Turner Joy reported being attacked once again. In response, President Lyndon Johnson asked for, and was given by Congress, a blank check to combat the North Vietnamese.
As it turns out, we were not attacked the second day, although that’s not the point. The point is that we went to war based on bad information – information that was theoretically experienced, or “seen.” In making the decision, President Johnson and other Congressional hawks had the mindset that the North Vietnamese were bent on conflict and that through attrition warfare, we could wear down their will to fight. American leaders perceived Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists as a part of the Cold War.
The Vietnamese Communists, however, would have disagreed. For them, the Vietnam War was not a part of the Cold War, but rather a continuation of their War for Independence. No amount of aerial or ground attrition would have defeated them. We failed to empathize with the Vietnamese. From this lack of empathy, the United States entered a war it should have avoided.
The 2003 Invasion of Iraq is another, more recent, example. President George W. Bush and his foreign policy advisors believed that Iraq Dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaeda. Because of that belief, data and opinion that disagreed with that assessment were dismissed and their champions sidelined. A course of action had been determined and all contrary evidence was swept aside. Right now, at least 175,000 people are dead who would otherwise be alive had our leaders been more critical of their biases and mindsets.
This lesson is critical for American policy-makers. If we are going to put lives, American or otherwise, in harm’s way, we had better be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that our reasoning is solid and that our course of action is the correct one. Otherwise, we send our fellow brothers and sisters to an early, and unnecessary, demise.
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