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Lessons from The Fog of War

This is a longer piece I wrote about The Fog of War some years ago.


A while ago I watched the movie “The Fog of War,” which is a big long interview with former Secty. Of Defense Robert McNamara. He worked for JFK and Johnson; many people feel he was responsible for our escalating presence in Vietnam during those crucial years of the Johnson administration. I wrote about it in my blog (www.livejournal.com/users/lidarose9) a couple times, but the hardest thing I wanted to really ponder before writing about.

During the movie, the filmmaker Erroll Morris pulled out highlights from what McNamara said and turned them into the film’s 11 lessons. McNamara, however, did not realize Morris was doing this. Afterwards, he came up with his own list. I’d like to look at both and comment on them.

The Film’s Eleven Lessons

This was Erroll Morris’ list highlighting key points in what McNamara said:

1. Empathize with your enemy

McNamara said he learned how important this is during the Cuban missile crisis. It was a war of nerves with nobody wanting to back down -- but one man on hand knew enough about the Soviet situation to be able to put himself into Kruschev’s shoes. That guy was able to envision a way out, a way for Kruschev to back down AND save face. Luckily, Kennedy listened to this guy. McNamara stresses: “We were this close to nuclear war,” holding up two fingers nearly touching.

Years later, McNamara had the opportunity to talk with Castro himself. He found that Castro had indeed recommended to Kruschev steps that would have inevitably led to all-out war. Castro had been willing to see Cuba blown to bits. Which leads nicely to #2.

2. Rationality will not save us

This is how he sees it, this simply: Nuclear war is suicide, and rational individuals will take that step. Human fallability and nuclear capabilities will destroy nations.

He made the point that in the past you could kill thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, but you could not destroy an entire nation. Now you can.

You don’t have to be a maniac to push the button. Some level-headed, perfectly rational man will someday stand there and push that button, knowing full well what it means.

3. There is something beyond yourself.

But he didn’t talk about God or any kind of religion, as I recall. My recollection is that he was talking about his analysis of the abort rate of the bombers during WWII. They discovered that many of the bombers would find reasons to call it off and head for home with their mission undone. They had to make it very difficult for the pilots to call it off, otherwise they would. I don’t recall how this relates. If you see the movie, you tell me.

4. Maximize efficiency.

During WWII, McNamara’s job in the Air Force was to figure out how to make our bombing more efficient. Our B-29s were taking fuel from India into China in order to bomb Japan. It was a big mess, he said. His boss Curtis LeMay made the decision to move to the Marianas islands in Micronesia.

To avoid the ground fire from anti-aircraft, our bombers had to go up as high as 23,000 ft., which meant their aim was very imprecise. Curtis LeMay took the B-29s to 5,000 ft. with the incendiary bombs that devastated Japan.

Target destruction was LeMay’s obsession, he said. In one night in March 1945, over 100,000 civilians were killed when 50 square miles of Tokyo was bombed into a firestorm. “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

“Why was it necessary to drop the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima when LeMay was bombing the hell out of Japan?” he went on to say.

Killing 50-90% of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with nuclear bombs was not proportional to the objectves we were trying to achieve, he said.

But he does not blame Truman for this. Truman was playing by the rules of war.

“LeMay said if we lost the war, we’d all be prosecuted as war criminals,” and McNamara agrees. “LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral.”

"But what makes it moral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" McNamara asks.

In the end, 900,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the war.

Later he talked about Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, where we dropped 2-3 times as many bombs on North Vietnam as was dropped on Western Europe in all of WWII.

6. Get the data.

After the war, he was appointed president of Ford Motor Co. One of his big projects was to introduce seat belts. Everybody was opposed to it at first, but the data was immediately shown to save lives. Nobody could argue with that.

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

On Aug 2, 1964, the US destroyer Maddox reported being fired upon by North Vietnamese patrol boats. But there was confusion about whether it had indeed been a real attack, and so at the time we did nothing. Later on there would be indications that the Maddox had indeed been fired upon that day.

A few days later on Aug. 4, the Maddox and another destroyer reported they were attacked again. Again, there was confusion. This time we reacted to it with reprisals: bombing attacks on the North Vietnamese. In time it was revealed that there had been no attack on this day. The mistake was due, MacNamara said, to “overeager sonar men.”

Johnson interpreted these questionable attacks as an indication that the North Vietnamese intended to escalate their conflict with us. He was wrong. Nevertheless, he obtained the Tonkin Gulf resolution from Congress, which essentially gave him the authority to wage an undeclared war.

We see what we want to believe.

When McNamara visited Vietnam in 1995, the former foreign minister of Vietnam told him the US had been seen as trying to enslave them. “We were fighting for our independence.” But in 1964, Johnson saw the Vietnam war through a Cold War lens, stubbornly viewing it in an outdated and inaccurate perspective.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

What is morally appropriate in a war-time environment? What are the rules of war?

He talked about Agent Orange, the defoliant we used in Vietnam that killed the soldiers and civilians exposed to it. Were the people who approved the use of this criminals?

We don’t have clear definitions.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

“But minimize it,” he said.

He talked about the man who set himself on fire in front of his office at the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. He was a Quaker. How much evil must we do to accomplish good?

“This was a cold war activity,” he concludes quietly.

10. Never say never.

In 1963 McNamara recommended creating a plan to pull us out of Vietnam altogether. But in November, the widespread unrest in South Vietnam erupted in a coup where the Vietnamese leader Diem was assassinated. In the midst of that turmoil, that was no time to pull out or be seen to back-pedal.

Nonetheless, if he hadn’t been assassinated three weeks later, Kennedy would probably not have had us in it so deep in Vietnam, McNamara says. He puts the responsibility for the expansion of our involvement in Vietnam squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.

So, whatever McNamara’s personal feelings about the war, Johnson was committed it and he was McNamara’s boss. McNamara clearly felt he had to do the best he could to do what his boss wanted.

Finally on Nov. 1, 1967, McNamara wrote a memo to Johnson telling him what he really thought about the war, saying essentially the course we’re on is totally wrong, we gotta change it, gotta cut back. He laughed when he remarked that he was either fired or resigned as a result; he wasn’t sure which.

But in spite of their differences, Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom. McNamara completely choked up and was unable to speak at the ceremony.

11. You can't change human nature.

He talked about “the Fog of War” – war is confusing, there’s a lot riding on every decision, and we make mistakes. It isn’t that we aren’t rational; we are, but reason has limits.

Later scenes, other thoughts, the epilogue

In 1937, he was in Shanghai when it was bombed by the Japanese. He was on deck watching the bombing.

He believes Curtis LeMay was truly scary: ‘extremely belligerent, some would say brutal,” “extremely intolerant of criticism.” (LeMay, it is said, was the model for Sterling Hayden’s character in “Doctor Strangelove.” He is exactly the kind of person you want on your side in a war, but someone you may not want to sit next to at a dinner party.)

He and his wife were both in the hospital with polio on VJ day.

He was the first president of Ford who was not from the Ford family. But after 5 weeks he quit to join the Kennedy administration, first as Kennedy’s Secty. of the Treasury, then Secty. of Defense. He asked for and obtained a guarantee from Kennedy that he would not need to be part of the social world in Washington.

One of the most revealing things he said, about dealing with the press: Never answer the question asked of you. Answer the question you wish had been asked.

He beams when he talks about JFK – Bobby too. He was proud of how much they grew, how fast they learned. He obviously shared their excitement and optimism. Kennedy asked everybody on his staff to read “Guns of August.” In it, one German general said, “How did it happen?” and the other said, “I wish I knew.” Kennedy declared that’s not going to happen to us. Bobby Kennedy called him to tell him JFK was dead. All these years later, he chokes up talking about it. He takes comfort in the fact that he found and recommended the perfect spot at Arlington for JFK’s grave, the most beautiful view.

It’s clear that to this day, he marvels at the close shaves, the dumb luck in his own life, in our nation’s history. He said there were three times while he was Secty. of Defense we came “this close” to nuclear war.

Morris asks him: Why didn’t you speak out agains the war after you left Johnson? He did not want to answer, implied that he did not want to be inflammatory. A lot of people misunderstand. I believe he felt he needed to keep his mouth shut out of loyalty to Johnson.

Morris asks him: Do you feel guilty? But he won’t talk about that, he says it’s so complex…You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. He says he’d rather be damned if he doesn’t.

After he left politics, he was president of the World Bank for many years. He talks about one of the projects he spearheaded there: a program to combat a disease known as “river blindness” in third-world countries. He played a key role in saving hundreds of thousands of people from this disease.

Morris asks him about the people protesting the war in Iraq. McNamara wants to know why nobody is protesting the fact that our infant mortality rate is twice that of Cuba.

Two weeks before her death, his wife was awarded the Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter for the “Reading is Fundamental” program, which she founded. He was clearly very proud of her.

At the end of the film, he again choked up as he quoted T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploring and at the end of our exploration we will return to where we started and know the place for the first time.”

My Analysis of the Film’s 11 Lessons

1. Empathize with your enemy.

I don’t know whether it was Machiavelli or Lao Tzu who said Know your enemy, but if they didn’t, they should have.

It’s evident to anybody who has read anything about Vietnam that our involvement there was based on a whole bunch of really silly ideas that just were not true. You need to walk around in your enemy’s shoes. You need to see the world from his doorstep.

Hold that up against this other truism: In order to wage war, to justify killing people, we need to dehumanize the enemy, demonize him, turn him into an object. It’s a lot easier to make a person into an object when he seems alien, foreign, unlike you. Empathy makes that more difficult.

Between those two ideas is a huge hole we fall into a lot. Personally I think it should be part of the decisionmaking process when considering whether to wage a war. If you can learn a lot about your enemy, if you’ve stood in his shoes, and you STILL feel justified in going to war, then your decision can only be better-informed.


All of us would only benefit from learning more about the Islamic religion, the history of the country of Iraq, our role in helping to create the current situation, etc.


Though his actions contributed to the death of literally millions of people, McNamara himself never had to kill anybody first-hand. The death of an individual (the Quaker war protester, JFK) can move him to strong emotion, but he remains detached from the millions of dead behind those Japanese and Vietnamese maps.

Would McNamara have been able to pull the trigger himself, if he’d been standing face-to-face with Ho Chi Minh or Castro or Kruschev?

2. Rationality will not save us.

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

10. Never say never.

These four are closely related and overlap.

There is no question in my mind that relying on pure rationality rarely works for human problem. Mister Spock knew that. Yes, you need to get the data, and yes, you need to do the homework, but that won’t give you the whole picture. You need to be able to let go of your rationality. Check your assumptions. Be willing to change horses in midstream. Not get so attached to an idea in your head that you allow it to rule you. You need to ask yourself: “What if I am wrong?” and answer honestly. You need to let go of your ego attachment to a position, be willing to change your mind.

3. There is something beyond yourself.

Right on.

It’s hard to talk about this without getting into a whole big religious deal, but McNamara didn’t. He managed to emphasize how important this is without making it about somebody’s religion.

It’s easier for me to focus on the collective good rather than a God figure. We hang so much on God; there are things we need to do for ourselves. Because it’s the right thing to do.

4. Maximize efficiency.

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

6. Get the data.

If you are serious about maximizing your efficiency, you must have accurate data. If you’ve done your homework and know what is needed to accomplish your goal, you would not drop more bombs than is necessary to accomplish that goal.

The issue here is that sometimes the destruction of the bombs themselves is only part of the goal. Demoralizing the enemy is almost as important. Making a point.

Some say we bombed the hell out of Japan so far beyond what was called for in order to make an impression on the Soviets. Some say the same about Dresden.

Playing the board game Axis & Allies made me see that war differently. What a devil’s bargain, riding the tiger. Watching the Soviets arm, attack, drive the Germans back… you gotta hope to hell they STOP when the war is over. We could never be sure they would.

It would have been nice if there’d been a little bell that would tell us when we’d dropped enough bombs to get Japan to give up, but there wasn’t. Personally I am glad they did too much rather than not enough. But McNamara’s point is well taken and valid. I’m with him on it.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

He hastened to add, “But minimize it.” Yeah. Life is messy, and war is messier. You can’t stand outside it all. You have to make difficult trade-offs. All you can do is do your homework (see above) and do the least evil possible while still accomplishing what must be done.

11. You can't change human nature.

What does this mean? McNamara meant you can’t erase the possibility for error cuz we’re human, we’re flawed. So you gotta build in some safety nets, cushions. When the stakes are sky high, you need some insurance.

What this means to me, in this context, is that it is human nature to make war. I wish it was not.

I’ve come to believe that there is something in men that makes them like to fight. They enjoy confrontation and conflict. They like to test themselves against one another. They create contests even when there is no need. If you don’t give them a war, they will make one. Sports, gangs, youth crime, everything from bullying to vandalism, tagging to tattoos. It’s all an expression of some male need.

Of course there are exceptions. I’m making a generalization.

If I was Boss of the World, I would create the equivalent of medieval tournaments and force all males age 13-45 to participate. War games. Some structured testosterone-expending activity. They may not be too tired to fight (fighting doesn’t seem to depend on rest), but it might burn off some of the energy.

But more than anything, I’d invest in colleges to study the avoidance of war, find the sources of conflict and develop strategies to counteract the impetus that drives us like lemmings ever onward into the abyss. I’d have people studying peace. Make it some peoples’ jobs to find the roots of conflict and create ways to resolve it peacefully. Their salary depending on their success. It would be on everybody’s job descriptions: -Avoid war as assigned.

McNamara’s 10 Lessons

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 to the principle of proportionality.

The combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.

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 the power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental US, Hawaii and Alaska.

Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign policy and defense policy, but surely we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of the US foreign policy and indeed of foreign policies across the globe: the avoidance in this century of the carnage (160 million dead) caused by conflict in the 20th century.

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, healthy and employment.

Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course they have responsibilities to stockholders, but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers, and to society as a whole.

President Kennedy believed a primary responsibility of a president – indeed the primary responsibility of a president – is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.

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 on the International Court – that the US has refused to support – which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.

If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy – I don’t mean “sympathy,” but rather “understanding” – to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.

One of the great dangers we face today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction as a result of the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Regine. We in the US are contributing to that breakdown.

My Thoughts on McNamara’s 10 Lessons

This is more like a fantasy wish-list than a “lessons learned” list. It’s hard to argue with any of it, but HOW? We need more. We need a how-to guide, a user’s guide.

McNamara is saying the only situation he can imagine that would justify “proceeding unilaterally” without the support of our usual allies is a direct attack against the U.S. Again, we bump up against that definitions thing. Many people believe the 9/11 attacks were just that, an attack on the continental U.S…. but by whom? The devil is in the details.

I can’t help feeling the real imagination and leadership we need as a nation today lies not in the direction of war or even trade -- but in the opportunities we have to help others. We should be more like the Organians.


Reading peoples’ reactions to this movie on Amazon and the Imdb, I am struck by the pure hate some feel for McNamara. It’s clear there’s nothing he could say that could make any difference to them.

This baffles me. He looks and sounds like a thoughtful, moral man to me. He is not someone I would pick out of a group and say “mass murdering kook.” I was too young during the Vietnam years to take much notice of the specifics, and so I can’t really know what created such hatred around him.

I think it was McNamara’s intention to be a good man, to live a good life, be a good husband and father. I think his heart was in the right place. I think his head got in his way, and that’s why he harps so much now the limits of rationality. His errors, I would bet, came from over-thinking things.

I believe both he and LBJ were not war-mongering maniacs. They were doing what they believed was best not only for the US but for the whole world. That was not the real problem.

I think McNamara thinks he has found out a little bit about what the real problem was, and it does have implications for our lives today.

I think it takes a hell of a lot of guts to be willing to keep learning, keep listening and to to be willing to reevaluate what you once may have thought about a thing, to apply the lessons that time has taught you, to be willing to see the truth of things as time has unveiled it. It would be a lot safer for a guy like him to sit back and hide behind his old positions, rigidly attached to that past interpretation of things.

Conversely McNamara resists the temptation to oversimplify. He refuses to paint with a broad brush. And he’s not a whiner, second-guessing himself or others forty years too late in order to obtain retroactive absolution. There was a lot of inflection, influence, implications, informing their decisions that can’t be summarized for today’s short attention span.

I related to him. When you’re on the team, you gotta take the bullet if the Number One guy is wrong. A good boss can’t undercut his superiors or second-guess their decisions publicly. Especially in war, you gotta present a unified front. He was doing that. Kennedy and Johnson were the decision-makers where Vietnam was concerned, not McNamara. Once they’d committed to a course of action, it was his job to carry it out. If you didn’t like being on the team, you quit. Which is what he eventually did. He voted with his feet.

I’d like someone to finance a whole series of films like this. Take twelve or twenty people alive today who had some pivotal role in past events and interview them like this, over a period of months. Pick their brains. The thoughtful articulate ones, I mean.

I was impressed with McNamara. I would like to hear more of what he has to say.





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