Monday, February 05, 2007
Fog of War - 11 Lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara
McNamara was educated, in Logic and Ethics, at UC Berkeley and became the youngest tenured professor at Harvard, and then President of Ford Motor Company. As the former Secretary of Defense during both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Robert S. McNamara is a man that many consider a "Son-of-a-bich", but his experience and responsibility in leading the United States Military during some of the most crucial crises of the 20th century give him a unique perspective. Any wisdom he has gleaned from doing his job should be respected and taken to heart.
It is the job of old men to document their accumulated wisdom and leave a legacy for future generations. McNamara (and his wife) strived to solve world problems, and help us learn from our history. In the Fog of War, a documentary interview by Errol Morris, McNamara reveals his thought processes, and gives us the clues to derive the lessons of his life. Most revealing are his admissions of ignorance in the face of global crisis. The very decisions that killed or saved millions were made blindly, do to incomplete knowledge and understanding, leaving McNamara himself to conclude that we continue to exist today mainly due to blind luck.
Here I will re-list the lessons McNamara wants us to understand, as well as the lessons that the film choose to give us. I hope you watch the Fog of War and understand that these lessons are directly applicable to our conflicts TODAY and for our foreseeable future. We should not act blindly, and lacking wisdom we should first do no harm.
Lessons from The Fog of War:
#1 - Empathize with your enemy.
"We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to try to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions." - Robert S. McNamara
#2 - Rationality will not save us.
"I want to say, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, at the end we lucked out. It was LUCK that prevented Nuclear War. We came THAT close ... Rational individuals - Kennedy was rational, Khrushchev was rational, Castro was rational - came that close to the total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today." - Robert S. McNamara, in 2004, speaking about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1964.
#3 - There is something beyond oneself. (Lead from the Front)
At the beginning of WWII, Robert S. McNamara worked for Army Intelligence (oxymoron) and found that 20% of our bombers turned back before reaching their targets due to pilot cowardice (President G.H. Bush?). All pilots knew that 4% of bombers never came back. McNamara told Colonel Curtis LeMay, whom McNamara considered the finest combat commander of any military service, but extraordinarily brutal. When the Colonel got the report he issued the order, "I will be in the lead plane on every mission. Any plane that takes off will go over the target, or the crew will be court-martialed."
(The lesson is to lead from the front, by example, and hold all your men accountable. This is a just policy, it puts the responsible commander where he belongs, and it forces men to confront their commitment and police their own actions, effectively identifying deserters and commanders as cowards if they fail. LeMay was also the name of both the commander who ordered the Nuclear attacks on Japan, and wanted to annihilate Cuba with Nuclear Weapons.)
#4 - Maximize Efficiency.
During Vietnam one of the big controversies was the promotion of soldiers based upon the ratio of enemy killed. This policy resulted in inaccurate reporting and unverifiable brutality. McNamara recounts his experience in WWII of LaMay's policy of maximizing destruction, he ordered the B-52's fire bombing Tokyo to fly at just 500 feet, even though they could have flown above enemy attack. The result was total destruction of all targets, perhaps 100,000 burned to death, and very limited American casualties. By putting planes at risk, they increased the kill ratio, brutally maximizing efficiency. (highly efficient, see rule #5)
#5 - Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
"The human race has not really grappled with the Rules of War. (The Fact is that there Are None) We behave as war criminals. What is t that makes it immoral if you loose, but not if you win?" - Robert S. McNamara.
(Perhaps if we had a capable opponent, like China, we would be less likely to enter war. Eventually, all nations will have nuclear weapons, and that will level the playing field, but see Rule #11.)
#6 - Get the DATA.
The current lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction in IRAQ, are evidence that without accurate information, we are doomed to make mistakes. Regardless of weather our leaders lie, the facts never do.
#7 - Belief and Seeing are both often wrong.
The 'ghost' attacks of the Tonken Gulf Incident demonstrate how inexperienced soldiers and over zealous leaders can create horribly tragic outcomes. (see rule #6, #8, and #11)
"We believe what we want to believe." - Robert S. McNamara
#8 - Be prepared to Reexamine your reasoning.
"We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that political, economic, or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we would never have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can not persuade nations of comparable values of the merit of our cause, then we better reexamine our reasoning." - Robert S. McNamara, 2004
#9 - In order to do good, you may have to engage in EVIL.
A Quaker Pacifist named Morison burned himself alive in front of the Pentagon in 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. He held his young daughter in his arms, she survived. "Human Beings must stop killing other Human Beings" - Morison's Wife.
In 1967, 20,000 people protested the Vietnam War at a rally in front of the Pentagon, as the U.S. Army stood guard without ammunition per McNamara's order.
(McNamara is considered responsible for the use of "Agent Orange", a cancer causing defoliant used on Vietnam, later found to be the cause of cancer and birth-defects in thousands of Vietnamese and American War Veterans.)
#10 - Never Say Never.
"Never answer the question that is posed to you, answer the question you WISH was posed to you." - Robert S. McNamara, on speaking to the press. Strange that he seemed to honestly answer questions for this documentary, perhaps his wishes coincided with those who questioned him?
#11 - You Can Not Change Human Nature.
After the Second World War, McNamara was the President of Ford Motor Company for a brief time, he instituted the seat belt and other safety devices, that surely saved thousands of lives, but you must force individuals to use them. Human animals are lazy cowards, willing to kill for personal profit, but not to sacrifice even minimal effort to avoid death and destruction. As finite animals it seems we lack the foresight to see the consequences of our actions.
"We all make mistakes, and we all know it. It is not that we aren't rational, we are rational, but reason has its limits." - Robert S. McNamara
"At the end of our exploring, we will return to where we started, and know it for the first time." - T.S. Elliot
Fog of War Quotes:
On Vietnam -
"The war which we can neither win, loose, nor drop is evidence of an instability of ideas." - Senator Scott, 1964
"Now America wins the wars she undertakes, make no mistake about it. And we have declared war on TYRANY and AGGRESSION. If this little nation goes down the drain, and can't maintain her independence, ask yourself what's going to happen to all the other little nations?" - President Linden B. Johnson explaining the "Domino Theory" in 1964.
(Sounds exactly like the "War on Terrorism" and the current policy in the Middle-East, our president doesn't learn from history, even that which he has lived.)
"This is not primarily a military problem, it is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people ... As a prerequisite to that we must be able to guarantee their physical security" (speaking about South Vietnam in 1960's, more bombs were dropped upon Vietnam than upon all of Europe during WWII)
"You are totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence, you were fighting to enslave us. Mr. McNamara you must never have read a history book. Didn't you know that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years. No amount of bombing would have stopped us." - Former General Tong, of N. Vietnam in 1995, Speaking to Robert S. McNamara
"They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and that we were seeking to subject North and South Vietnam to our colonial interest, which was absolutely absurd. We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War, not what they saw it as, a Civil War." - Robert S. McNamara, 2004
On Nuclear War -
"The Earth is our temple. Shall we pull it down upon our heads? During the Kennedy Administration, the U.S. developed a 100 megaton bomb. They tested it within the atmosphere. Is that what we want?"
"Any Military Commander, who is honest with themselves, will admit he has made mistakes, that those mistakes have cost lives. With nuclear weapons there will be no learning period. You make one mistake and you will destroy nations."
"Is it right and proper that today (2004) there are 7500 strategic OFFENSIVE nuclear weapons, of which 2500 are on fifteen minute alert, to be launched by the decision of one human being?"
Cuban Missile Crisis - October 16-28, 1962, when we looked down the gun barrel into nuclear war.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy received two letters from the Russians. The first was from Khrushchev and gave us a way to diffuse the situation. The second was from Russian Hard-lineers and would escalate the crisis. Tommy Thompson advised the president to respond to the first message and ignore the second. Kennedy was hesitant and worried about looking weak to the Russians, he was going to increase the stakes. Tommy told John F. Kennedy that he was wrong, and that he didn't agree. During the most crucial moment of the Cold War, Tommy told the U.S. President he was wrong. That was courage.
"We (USSR) and you (USA) aught not pull upon a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars, and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sewing death and destruction, for such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles, and then mutual annihilation will commence." - Khrushchev, on the eve of destruction.
"The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations." - RSM
Ten Lessons from Robert S. McNamara:
1) The human race will not eliminate war in this century, but we can reduce the brutality of war - the level of killing - by adhering to the principles of a "Just War", in particular the principal of "proportionality".
2) The indefinite combination of Human Fallibility and Nuclear Weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.
3) We are NOT Omniscient. We are the most powerful country - politically, economically, and militarily (for now). If we can not persuade other nations with similar interests and values of the merits of our proposed use of that power, (then) we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.
4) Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to Foreign Policy and Defense Policy, but certainly we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of U.S. Foreign Policy and, indeed, of foreign policies across the globe: the Avoidance in the 21st century of the carnage - 160 million dead - caused by conflicts in the 20th century.
5) We, the richest nation in the world, have FAILED in our Responsibility to our own poor and to the disadvantaged across the world to help them advance their welfare in the most fundamental terms of nutrition, literacy, health and employment.
6) Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course, they have responsibilities to stock holders, but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers, and to society as a whole.
7) President Kennedy believed "The" primary responsibility of a President is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.
8) War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations, and economic sanctions are rarely effective. Therefore we should build a system of jurisprudence based upon the international court - that the U.S. has refused to support - which would hold INDIVIDUALS responsible for crimes against humanity.
(WOW - that was written by the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, and a major player in the Military Intelligence that Bombed Japan during WWII. He would have certainly been tried by such a court with such broad jurisdiction.)
9) If we are to deal effectively with Terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of EMPATHY - I do not mean 'sympathy', but rather "understanding" - to counter their (un-empathic) attacks on US and the Western world.
10) One of the greatest dangers we face today is that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction as a result of the breakdown of the non- proliferation regime we in the U.S. are contributing to that breakdown.
(It is interesting to note that as of this writing, Feb. 2007, the G.W. Bush administration has ignored ALL of these Lessons. The parenthetical notes and capitalization for emphasis are mine.)
McNamara reminds me of my grandfather, both were intelligent men with rational empathy and stubborn commitment to their country. They were born when Men were responsible for making decisions, and both made decisions that would later be seen as mistakes, yet both McNamara and Gramps surprise me by their continued to ability grow and learn from their experience right until the ends of their lives. I don't know if we can fairly judge the men who fought in World War II and the decisions they made during the second half of the 20th century. What we know now gives us the perspective of 20/20 hindsight, and given the information they had at the time, the context of their lives, their ignorance, we may have done nothing different. What we can do is learn from the patterns of conflict and their mistakes in judgement, and strive never to repeat them. Our crises should at least be original and unique to our time.
Robert S. McNamara
Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (Paperback)