Review DVD: The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

6 Star Special, Biography & Memoirs, Decision-Making & Decision-Support, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Insurgency & Revolution, Military & Pentagon Power, Power (Pathologies & Utilization), Reviews (DVD Only), War & Face of Battle

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5.0 out of 5 stars Every Miltary Person, and Ideally Every Citizen, SHould View,

June 21, 2004
Robert McNamara
This is the only documentary film to make it on to my list of 470+ non-fiction books relevant to national security & global issues. It is superb, and below I summarize the 11 lessons with the intent of documenting how every military person, and ideally every citizen, should view this film.As the U.S. military goes through the motions of “transformation” while beset by the intense demands of being engaged in a 100-year war on six-fronts around the world, all of them against asymmetric threats that we do not understand and are not trained, equipped, nor organized to deal with, this film is startlingly relevant and cautionary.

LESSON 1: EMPHATHIZE WITH YOUR ENEMY. We must see ourselves as they see us, we must see their circumstances as they see them, before we can be effective.

LESSON 2: RATIONALITY WILL NOT SAVE US. Human fallibility combined with weapons of mass destruction will destroy nations. Castro has 162 nuclear warheads already on the island, and was willing to accept annihilation of Cuba as the cost of upholding his independence and honor.

LESSON 3: THERE’S SOMETHING BEYOND ONESELF. History, philosophy, values, responsibility–think beyond your niche.

LESSON 4: MAXIMIZE EFFICIENCY. Although this was McNamara’s hallmark, and the fog of war demands redundancy, he has a point: we are not maximizing how we spend $500B a year toward world peace, and are instead spending it toward the enrichment of select corporations, building things that don’t work in the real world.

LESSON 5: PROPORTIONALITY SHOULD BE A GUIDELINE IN WAR. McNamara is clearly still grieving over the fact that we firebombed 67 Japanese cities before we ever considered using the atomic bomb, destroying 50% to 90% of those cities.

LESSON 6: GET THE DATA. It is truly appalling to realize that the U.S. Government is operating on 2% of the relevant information, in part because it relies heavily on foreign allies for what they want to tell us, in part because the U.S. Government has turned its back on open sources of information. Marc Sageman, in “Understanding Networks of Terror”, knows more about terrorism today than do the CIA or FBI, because he went after the open source data and found the patterns. There is a quote from a Senator in the 1960’s that is also compelling, talking about “an instability of ideas” that are not understood, leading to erroneous decisions in Washington. For want of action, we forsook thought.

LESSON 7: BELIEF & SEEING ARE BOTH OFTEN WRONG. With specific reference to the Gulf of Tonkin, as well as the failure of America to understand that the Vietnamese were fighting for independence from China, not just the French or the corrupt Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, McNamara blows a big whole in the way the neo-cons “believed” themselves into the Iraq war, and took America’s blood, treasure, and spirit with them.

LESSON 8: BE PREPARED TO RE-EXAMINE YOUR REASONING. McNamara is blunt here: if your allies are not willing to go along with you, consider the possibility that your reasoning is flawed.

LESSON 9: IN ORDER TO DO GOOD, YOU MAY HAVE TO ENGAGE IN EVIL. Having said that, he recommends that we try to maximize ethics and minimize evil. He is specifically concerned with what constitutes a war crime under changing circumstances.

LESSON 10: NEVER SAY NEVER. Reality and the future are not predictable. There are no absolutes. We should spend more time thinking back over what might have been, be more flexible about taking alternative courses of action in the future.

LESSON 11: YOU CAN’T CHANGE HUMAN NATURE. There will always be war, and disaster. We can try to understand it, and deal with it, while seeking to calm our own human nature that wants to strike back in ways that are counter-productive.

For those who dismiss this movie because McNamara does not apologize, I say “pay attention.” The entire movie is an apology, both direct from McNamara, and indirect in the manner that the producer and director have peeled away his outer defenses and shown his remorse at key points in the film. I strongly recommend the book by McNamara and James Blight, “WILSON’s GHOST.” In my humble opinion, in the context of the 470+ non-fiction books I have reviewed here, McNamara and Bill Colby are the two Viet-Nam era officials that have grown the most since leaving office. He has acquired wisdom since leaving defense, and we ignore this wisdom at our peril.

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