Empathise with the opposite figure

In the award-winning documentary “The Fog of War”, former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara gave 11 lessons from his life and career. There’s an important moment about 1:17:38 in the film, towards the end of lesson 7. For McNamara and the US, they committed the US military in Vietnam in fear of the region turning into a Communist stronghold. As for the Vietnamese, they saw the US forces as colonial invaders.

McNamara discusses a moment in 1995 where he had met his opposing figure from the Vietnam war, general Vo Nguyen Giap. They discussed their views and reasoning on why the war happened, and what they were looking to accomplish. There was a disagreement.

General Vo said to McNamara “You’re totally wrong! We were fighting for our independence, you were fighting to enslave us.” McNamara replied to General Vo “Do you mean to say it was not a tragedy for you, when you lost 3 million 400,000 Vietnamese killed, which on our population base is the equivalent of 27 million Americans? What did you accomplish? You didn’t get anymore than we we’re willing to give you at the beginning of the war. You could have had the whole damn thing - independence, unification”.

General Vo in response said “Mr McNamara, you must never have read a history book. If you’d had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara didn’t you know that? Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years? We were fighting for our independence, and we would fight to the last man, and we were determined to do so, and no amount of bombing, no amount of US pressure, would ever have stopped us.”

It is one of the most striking moments in the documentary, the realisation that neither party understood one another’s mindsets and intentions 31 years before, and in doing so entered into a war of terrible consequences. It is a reminder of how important it is to talk with the opposite figure and to understand their thinking.

We all need to communicate more.

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