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gav (2710)

gav
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Hacker in NYC.

Journal of gav (2710)

Sunday August 22, 2004
10:22 PM

Fog of War

[ #20510 ]

I've just finished The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. It is a powerful message about war and the people that lead us.

McNamara was in the Air Force during WWII, then the president of Ford, then the Secretary of Defense during some of the darkest days of the cold war, and the beginning of the Vietnam war. He talks about some of the decisions he was involved with, including the firebombing of Tokyo, and the use of Agent Orange; the defense of the indefensible, acts that today would be considered criminal. The film does humanize in some ways a man who was condemned and hated at the time, who tried to do what he considered right. It's well worth watching, a great documentary, with good use of archive footage.

One of his lessons -- talking about the lack of support from our allies in Vietnam -- seems even more relevant now with the war in Iraq:

We are the most powerful nation in the world - economically, politically and militarily - and we are likely to remain so for decades ahead. But we are not omniscient.

If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of our proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.

The eleven lessons of McNamara:

  1. Empathize with your enemy.
  2. Rationality will not save us.
  3. There's something beyond one's self.
  4. Maximize efficiency.
  5. Proportionality should be a guideline of war.
  6. Get the data.
  7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
  8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.
  9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.
  10. Never say never.
  11. You can't change human nature.
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  • If my memory serves me right, there's a longish and amusing section on MacNamara in Voltaire's Bastards [amazon.com] that you might like.
  • ...
    10. Never say never.
    11. You can't change human nature.

    Anyone else see a certain irony in the juxaposition of those two?

  • If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of our proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.

    What if in 1999, instead of merely offering support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, we decided to take out the Taliban because of its support of Al Qaeda, and we couldn't get any more allies than we got in this Iraq War? Sorry, but it would hav
    • Your argument is a hypothetical piled on top of a counterfactual, I've seen the film, it's one of my favorites from 2003. MacNamara suggests that the support of allies is a good heuristic for determining if you're about to do something stupid. BTW, I realize this was a few weeks ago, but I came across this entry in a totally unrelated Google search.
      • MacNamara suggests that the support of allies is a good heuristic for determining if you're about to do something stupid.

        I am arguing against the specific statement, and I stand by it. I am not saying we should ignore our allies, but just because they don't help does not mean we should not get involved, which is what
        gav quoted him as saying, what I am arguing about. It's one factor among many. I gave a hypothetical to show one case where it is easy to see that even if our allies didn't come along, we s
        • we DID persuade nations

          I think you mean governments. ;) But I admit that's probably what McNamara meant too.

          However, I do not think the Bush administration's persuasion efforts were what McNamara had in mind. The USA made it clear they had already decided on action and were closed to debate. Opposing nations were belittled or threatened, and others were bribed [rense.com] into support. As for countries like the UK, since the USA made it into a loyalty test, this makes it unclear how much was real support and how m

          • I don't see how you can say the US made it a loyalty test for the UK. I see no evidence of it. I see the US, rather than forcing anything on the UK, doing whatever it could to help Blair get political cover (such as going back to the UN to try for another resolution).

            And Turkey is not an example insofar as what we were discussing, as Turkey specifically was "persuaded ... of the merits of our proposed use of that power" before the "bribe" was proposed. The "bribe" was not to persuade them of the merits
  • I just came across this entry totally by chance.

    Just so you know, in the film, the chapter-framing "lessons" are by the filmmaker, Errol Morris. McNamara's book had different lessons. For instance, he would never say "rationality will not save us". He is always in pursuit of a more accurate explanation.

    See this page on a Berkley event [berkeley.edu] for McNamara's lessons (scroll down). And check out the video, if you have the time. It's really interesting.