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

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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