A Documentary a Day III: The War of 1812

(Ed: Scoring system explained here)

The War of 1812 (History Channel, 2004) **
Save yourself the time. Watch PBS instead.

If you love Baltimore, New Orleans and Washington D.C. and hate Tecumseh, Decatur, Macdonough, and Perry, then watch this film. If you think America chased off the British with two battles, then watch this film. If you think it’s important to dwell on the British raping and burning the Chesapeake coast while giving one sentence to America doing the same in Canada, then watch this film. If you think an English admiral with an axe to grind is “obsessive” while an American general with the same is just “looking for payback,” then watch this film. If you want re-enacting and computer graphics, then watch this film. If you want to learn something, watch PBS’s The War of 1812 instead.

The War of 1812 (PBS, 2011) ****
I typed the above review without ever having seen PBS’ The War of 1812. Thankfully, it was as good as I expected. Where the History Channel went focused on two battles and a handful of men, PBS tried to tell the entire story, incorporating American, British, Canadian, and Native-American History together in a fascinating examination of this weird, small, forgotten stalemate.

The most interesting part of the program is their examination of the historiography of the war. The War of 1812 looks at the myths that grew from the war and how every nation involved seemed to perceive the conflict differently. Americans, British, and Canadians all have reasons to claim victory, even if the result of the war was 4,000 KIA and a return to the status quo. The only thing everyone seems to agree upon is that Native-Americans were the primary losers. Following Tecumseh’s death, tribal nations lost massive tracts of land and would never again come together to stop America’s expansion westward.

A Documentary a Day II: The American Revolution

(Ed: Scoring system explained here)

The American Revolution (History Channel, 2006) ****
The History Channel’s thirteen-part (Get it? Thirteen?) documentary series on the American Revolution is a triumph of historical storytelling. It’s a staggeringly complex, yet imminently watchable, retelling of the American struggle for self-determination and independence.

The American Revolution is organized very effectively. It does a marvelous job separating the wheat from the chaff, discussing only the most important events and concepts. Every episode focuses on a major arc or idea, usually blending political, social, and military history together to form a coherent central narrative.

The series goes far beyond the simplistic treatment that pervades discussion of our nation’s founding. Concepts are explored in depth and stories are told from multiple perspectives. Women and minorities are seamlessly included. The British are humanized. It’s not just good television; it’s good history.

That’s not to say the series is perfect. Continue reading

The Fog of War Conclusion

Some things about war have changed. Its unpredictability has not. Its propensity to spiral out of control has not. Its tendency to grow beyond its planned scope has not. Its evil has not. These things are war and these things will never change. They only become more dangerous in a nuclear age.

“You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations,” Robert McNamara warned. Therefore, we must do everything in our power to avoid mistakes or situations in which mistakes can be made. Anything else will lead to unnecessary death and destruction.

Although the words are McNamara’s, the “lessons” are McNamara’s as perceived by Errol Morris. Even so, it is clear that Robert McNamara wished to pass along his knowledge to save lives and to save nations. McNamara has learned these lessons the hard way. Although the fog of war will shroud our vision and cloud our judgment, considering these lessons will help us minimize the consequences of our inevitable mistakes.

Jump to a lesson:
Lesson 1: Empathize with Your Enemy
Lesson 2: Rationality Will Not Save Us
Lesson 3: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self
Lesson 4: Maximize Efficiency
Lesson 5: Proportionality Should Be a Guideline in War
Lesson 6: Get the Data
Lesson 7: Belief and Seeing Are Often Both Wrong
Lesson 8: Be Prepared to Re-examine Your Reasoning
Lesson 9: In Order To Do Good, You May Have To Engage in Evil
Lesson 10: Never Say Never
Lesson 11: You Can’t Change Human Nature

Lesson 11: You Can’t Change Human Nature

It’s pretty easy to label Robert McNamara a pessimist. He does say “I’m not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war,” and after all, he suggests, you can’t change human nature.

I don’t think his skepticism stems from a belief that human nature is evil. It’s closer to what my friend Erik told me in a discussion about Syria. It’s not that we are inherently violent. It’s that we are bad at making decisions and war is ALWAYS an option. I tend to agree.

The most important thing we can do is learn from whatever mistakes we make. Continue reading

Lesson 10: Never Say Never

In war, the only certainty is that nothing is certain. If that is cliché, it’s only because it is too true to go unmentioned. The fog of war, combined with human unpredictability, can create outcomes or present opportunities that no one could predict. McNamara mentions, seemingly in passing, that he “learned very early” to never say never.

Although this might seem like a plea for optimism, I interpret it more as a reminder that we shouldn’t give up before we try something. The St. Nazarie Raid. Operation Entebbe. These were thinly-veiled suicide missions, if they were veiled at all. However, they still worked. Never say never.

If this lesson is useful in war, it’s even more useful in preventing it. Continue reading

Lesson 9: In Order To Do Good, You May Have To Engage in Evil

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction. It’s a law of the universe as we currently understand it. In a more general sense, every action has consequences, both positive and negative. A lot of ripples are going to be created when something as large as a nation or as blunt as military force throws a stone into a pond. McNamara urges us to remember that in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

Objectively, there is no greater evil than ending a human life. If one is religious, edicts against killing are found in every sacred text. If not, it’s a waste beyond measure to end a nearly cosmically impossible life.

Yet, the United States has certain values and certain responsibilities on the world stage. If the United Nations decides that genocide is occurring, it is our responsibility to stop it, with military force if necessary. If an ally is attacked, we are bound to protect them, with military force if necessary. If we are attacked, we must defend ourselves. A nation can do none of these things without engaging in evil.

The key is to minimize the evil as much as possible. Continue reading

Lesson 8: Be Prepared to Re-examine Your Reasoning

If Lesson 7 shows us that is that we perceive, not see, reality, then his next lesson is how to fix that problem. We are not omniscient. We make mistakes. We can’t trust ourselves. If this is the case, then McNamara suggests we be prepared to re-examine our reasoning.

One part of re-examining our reasoning is remaining open-minded when making decisions. If we know we are not perfect, we should remain realistic about the chance of being wrong. Bring in people who disagree. Listen to them. If their questions can’t be answered, there is a good chance you are headed down a wrong path. This was certainly the case with the 2003 Invasion of Iraq when President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and other national security advisors sidelined Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, and others in the State Department who disagreed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or links to Al-Qaeda.

Another part of this lesson is listening to our allies. McNamara’s belief is that the United States should never apply political, economic, or military power unilaterally. Continue reading