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.
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 →
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →