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

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Lesson 7: Belief and Seeing Are Often Both Wrong

A common aphorism suggests that “seeing is believing,” suggesting that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear. Only when we see something with our own two eyes can we be certain of the truth. Of course, this is wrong. Instead, “believing is seeing.” Our minds are not blank slates that record data. Our biases and beliefs color our perception, changing our interpretation of what we see. McNamara’s advice is to understand that belief and seeing are often both wrong.

As an example, McNamara walks us through the Tonkin Gulf Incident. On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol craft. Two days later, the Maddox and the Turner Joy reported being attacked once again. In response, President Lyndon Johnson asked for, and was given by Congress, a blank check to combat the North Vietnamese.

As it turns out, we were not attacked the second day, although that’s not the point. Continue reading

Lesson 6: Get the Data

In order to make good decisions, we cannot simply depend on rationality or our intellectual gifts. Just as dangerous as operational mistakes are structural mistakes. A bad process will spell disaster just as quickly as a mistake in a good process. After all, as much as people enjoy using hindsight to validate or condemn decisions, good decision-making is determined by the process, not by the result. McNamara certainly believes that in order to make good decisions, one must get the data.

McNamara uses his time at Ford Motor Company to prove his point. He discovered that 40,000 people died in car accidents every year, most of whom died not as a result of the impact, but from being thrown into the steering wheel. The egg carton inspired him to think about packaging, which led to all sorts of tests, and eventually, the seat belt. Thanks to McNamara and Ford’s research, some 250,000 lives have been saved.

This is an idea easy to relate to foreign policy. Continue reading

Lesson 5: Proportionality Should Be a Guideline in War

During General Sherman’s March to the Sea during the American Civil War, Sherman wrought as much destruction as he could. His goal was to sap the South of both the means and the will to fight. He scoured the countryside for supplies and killed livestock. Rail twisted around trees became known as a “Sherman necktie.” His motto was simple: “War is hell.” Although McNamara would not disagree with Sherman, his fifth lesson is that proportionality should be a guideline in war.

If two things are proportional, they are equivalent or roughly equal. McNamara suggests that damage inflicted in a time of war should be proportional to one’s goals. He does not advocate “taking it easy” on one’s opponents. He is not suggesting a nation fail to get the job done. He is saying we should strive to kill only as much as necessary to achieve our objectives.

In 1945, the United States began bombing Japan using incendiary weapons. 51% of Tokyo was destroyed, killing 100,000. Continue reading

Lesson 4: Maximize Efficiency

No person, company, or nation would be opposed to doing more with less. Successfully meeting goals on time and on budget is the goal of every organization in existence. No one wants to wait forever. No one wants to spend unnecessary money. No one wants to fail. McNamara’s fourth lesson is to maximize efficiency.

To support this lesson, McNamara takes us back to his time with the Army Air Corps during World War II. The United States was determined to strike the Japanese Home Islands with their new B-29 bombers. US transports flew fuel from India over The Hump to US airfields in China. When McNamara and his team analyzed the data, Continue reading

Lesson 2: Rationality Will Not Save Us

A lot of people misunderstand the moral of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many have looked at what transpired and drew the conclusion that leaders could manage a nuclear crisis. As long as everyone behaved rationally, they said – as long as everyone was logical and behaved in a manner that brought them closer to their goals – things would work out in the end. This ignores Robert McNamara’s forceful belief that “It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” McNamara’s second lesson is that rationality will not save us.

For rationality to save us, two things must be present. Continue reading

Lesson 1: Empathize with Your Enemy

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their actions and goals. Empathy can help one understand what one’s adversaries want, allowing everyone to come to a mutually satisfying outcome without the use of military force and its attendant death and destruction. McNamara’s first lesson is to empathize with your enemies.

In the film, McNamara relates how empathy won the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wished to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. With Soviet cargo ships bringing the final supplies to activate the missiles, President Kennedy and his advisors had little time to decide a course of action. Continue reading