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

Change & The Shared Experience

At the end of the film The Fog of War, Robert McNamara shares a T.S. Eliot poem, one of his favorites.

We shall not cease from exploring,
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The idea is that exploration teaches. It changes us and helps us better understand our world. Eliot’s stanza chokes me up, mostly because it has been so true in my own life. When I visited Colorado, the world beyond Minnesota opened before me. When I spent two weeks in London and Edinburgh, I gained perspective, the knowledge that all I am and all I know are a drop in the world’s ocean.

It is impossible to travel or learn without changing. There’s too much stimulus, too much that is new or foreign. Our brains must adapt to make sense of it. We gain a vantage point to reliably reconsider ourselves. We understand how we are all the same. And why we are so different.

When we explore with others, those relationships change too. It is inevitable. Meals are shared. Streets are walked. Drinks are had. Sobriety is lost. Minutiae are discussed. Life is discussed. Mishap occurs. And all of it is done in uncharted territory, where all you have are each other.

This is the power of the shared experience. When people go through a thing together, they become brothers and sisters. It is no coincidence that my closest friends are those I visited, or with whom I traveled, in Colorado and London.

Change is inevitable. And when positive change is shared, it brings people together in ways one would never expect. Or know, unless they climb out of their comfort zone and stare down the infinite unknown with their brothers and sisters.

Sea of Troubles

Oppression. Revolution. 80,000 dead. I am hesitant by nature, but this does not often apply to my intellectual proclamations. We get involved or we don’t. We send weapons or we don’t. We invade or we don’t. Yet, the Syrian Civil War reduces me to Hamlet, putting off making a decision as to what must be done.

Or mustn’t.

I know many truths, as well as the truths that contradict those truths. Continue reading