1. Empathize with your enemy. McNamara stated this several times and kept coming back to this basic theme throughout the documentary. His prime example was the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Tommy Thompson, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R., pointedly disagreed with JFK in a key Cabinet meeting, by advising that Khrushchev would probably take a deal and avert the crisis if he could portray his actions as having stopped a U.S. invasion of Cuba coupled with a later withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey (even when all missiles were withdrawn from Cuba). That is, because Thompson knew the Kremlin fairly well, he could foresee a resolution of the crisis which allowed face saving for all. In contrast, McNamara admitted that, regarding Vietnam, no such empathy took place.
The relevance to today's Iraq situation seems obvious. After the invasion and occupation of the Green Zone, Bush and his sycophants spent about a year or so denying that an insurgency even existed (dismissing actions of a few "dead-enders") and then, when it became obvious to all that the occupation had spawned a resistance, over-emphasizing the al Qaeda "foreign fighter" element of the insurgency. And by not empathizing with the citizenry, who wanted security as well as more freedom, the situation was allowed to become anarchized, with roving independent private militias providing whatever security was had. It would seem that little to no effort has been made to understand the insurgency, much less empathize with its various components. And, this is 40 months after the onset of the war.
2. Rationality will not save us. McNamara's example here was that Castro admitted to him (in the late 80's) that he had indeed requested the Soviets to nuke the U.S., fully expecting full nuclear retaliation on Cuba. McNamara professed to be shocked by this revelation - his point being that you cannot expect an adversary to behave in a manner that you deem rational. McNamara further emphasized this point by relating some statements he made to the Vietnamese leaders when he visited in the 90's -they told him that they would gladly have accepted even higher "kill ratios" for their troops because their independence was at stake. This point seems quite relevant to the suicide bombers and other extreme actions that, like kamikaze pilots, seemingly make no sense to Americans.
3. There's something beyond one's self. Morris primarily used this to describe McNamara's private life, but it was also generally applicable to America-centric views that do not take into account the views of others, which applies to the allies the U.S. did not have in the Vietnam war, and to the adversaries (the Vietnamese view of the canard that they were "puppets" of the Sino-Soviet bloc was laughter and incredulity). If we can't convince allies that an invasion is warranted, perhaps it should be re-thought.
4. Maximize efficiency. McNamara's example was moving the bomber group from India to the Marianas at the latter stages of WWII, which could hit Japan easier, succor China more fully and be far less costly in men and materiel. Regarding Iraq, there are examples where too much efficiency has been sought (Rumsfeld's insistence on inadequate troop strength) at too high cost (no body armor for troops until two years into the war; no underplating and mechanical armor until recently(?)) and too little has been achieved (waiting and more patient diplomacy might have allowed Turkey to be used initially for another armored division invasion).
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. This was McNamara's apologia for the Tokyo fire-bombing and the destruction of most of the Japanese cities. This could apply to Shock and Awe, torture, worldwide gulags and extraordinary rendition (as well as domestic eavesdropping).
6. Get the data. This is very McNamara-esque and he used it to describe market research that gave us cheaper cars (Ford Falcon) and seat belts. But he also applied it to the Vietnam experience. The relevance to Iraq, in my view, is that real data should be obtained outside the Green Zone as to what is occurring. How many real deaths?? Who caused them?? What does the forensic evidence show? How many insurgents are there?? Where are they?? Who are they? What do they want? How much electricity was being provided and how much now?? How much oil was being pumped and how much now?? What happened to the $9 billion that the GAO says is unaccounted for?? There is so much that we should know that we don't (primarily because the security situation is so awful).
To me, this seems coupled with "Tell the Truth" although McNamara obviously never said that. At the least, the truth should be told in high governmental circles. Given all the palpable WMD lies and all the other unproven allegations that launched the unprovoked Iraq invasion, this is an area fraught with difficulty for the Bushies. And what is not encouraging is a supposed high levelr conference, in which all of the relevant issues were going to be debated, turning instead into no such meeting because it was all a media extravaganza designed to give Bush a photo op in Iraq for no apparent reason.
7. Belief and seeing and are both often wrong. McNamara's point here was that the Tonkin Gulf incident was (at least partially) a subterfuge used as a pretext for expanding the Vietnamese occupation. McNamara said that "we see what we want to believe." And that "the judgment that we were attacked [in the manner believed] was wrong." WMD's?? Oil revenues paying the estimated $800 billion cost?? Greeted as liberators?? Last throes?? The list of Iraq analogies is virtually endless.
8. Be prepared to examine your reasoning. Here, MNamara again made the point of having no allies and pointedly intimated that one "should not attack unilaterally." Nuff said.
9. In order to be good, you may have to engage in evil. This was the Norman Morrison (a Quaker who committed suicide by burning himself directly outside McNamara's office) comparison. McNamara said that he agreed with Morrison now, but was essentially empathizing with his former position (although his examples; Sherman burning Atlanta and LeMay firebombing everything and Truman nuking Hiroshima/Nagasaki were perhaps not the best to support his position - albeit vivid). As stated, this is the one lesson that Bush and his sycophants appear to be following fairly well. Perhaps McNamara really meant the obverse.
10. Never say Never, Never Never Never. McNamara was trying to make a joke and Morris sort of got it. The point, I think, was not to be afraid of changing course even if one formerly believed in the domino theory and the initial efficacies of the Vietnam war and had publically and privately derided a "cut and run" strategy.
11. You can't change human nature. Reason has limits. We all make mistakes. Man is naturally war-like. It all contributes to the Fog of War. You can never know enough. These were McNamara's - filtered throug Morris - parting shots.
I hold no brief for Robert McNamara. I have read two of his three books in which, despite saying that he would never write such memoirs, constitutes perhaps the most high-level first-person memoirs of the Vietnam conflict. My overall impression of him is not stellar. Nonetheless, what he says is relevant to today's situation and should be cosidered in the ongoing debate.