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 3: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self

Whether one is religious or not, it is as incredible as it is unlikely that we exist. At some point, I wrote this. Right now, you are reading this. It is amazing. Yet, there are 6 billion more just like us, none more important than any other. McNamara’s third lesson is that there is something beyond one’s self.

We are flawed enough that we, in and of ourselves, are a pretty lousy goal. As such, McNamara was glad to have learned philosophy, logic, and ethics from his schooling at the University of California, Berkley. He took from Berkley the sense of responsibility to society that exemplified his career in public service. McNamara could have stayed President of Ford Motor Company for most of his life and retired a millionaire. Instead, he spent it serving his nation.

It’s difficult to derive some overarching message because the lesson’s “something” is going to be different for everyone. 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

The Fog of War Introduction

War. War never changes.

Or so says the introduction of every game of the Fallout series. Whether fighting other nations, groups of bandits, or our merciless existence itself, the concept of war remains unchanged.

Except that war has changed.

War has always destroyed lives. War has always destroyed families. By the 1800s, war destroyed cities. However, when Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer, and others worked their magic, war has had the potential to destroy our world.

Enter Robert McNamara, officer of the US Army Air Corps, President of Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and President of the World Bank. Filmmaker Errol Morris conducted over twenty hours of interview with McNamara. The result is the Academy Award-winning documentary film The Fog of War.

As McNamara states seconds into the film,

Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations.

And the conventional wisdom is don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.

The Fog of War is, in many ways, McNamara’s swan song, the culmination of twenty-five years of public service. The film takes us through Morris and McNamara’s eleven lessons of war, a rubric to minimize death and destruction in the 21st Century.

Jump to a lesson:
Introduction
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
Conclusion