“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. There will be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations.”
Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War (2003)
One of the best documentaries I've ever seen comes from (not surprisingly) one of the best documentary filmmakers I've ever saw, in the form of one Errol Morris. The 2003 film The Fog of War, which is essentially an extended and animated interview with Robert S. McNamara, is in many ways the pinnacle of achievement for Errol Morris, who rarely, if ever, had such heavyweight characters as sole interview subjects. In addition to hard-hitting questions, Morris pioneered the use of camera and interview techniques which captured the look deep in the subject's eyes, which is surprisingly difficult to do.
Besides knowing that he was the youngest-ever president of the Ford Motor Company before he was appointed Secretary of Defense by JFK, I didn’t know much about McNamara, or cared to. A hugely controversial character during the 60’s, McNamara was seen by many as being one of the principal architects of the Vietnam War, but was he really? Near the end of the film, Morris asks McNamara point-blank about his responsibility for the war, to which McNamara gave a deliberately ambiguous answer, saying he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and politely but firmly chooses not to discuss it.
McNamara goes on to tell his life story, saying his earliest childhood memories were of the celebrations following the end of World War 1. One of his teachers put the highest-scoring student on a certain chair at the front of the class, and he tells of how the Japanese and Jewish students were always battling that damned Irishman (meaning himself) for the spot. He marries his high school sweetheart and has a kid. Being an MBA holder from Harvard back when MBA's actually meant something, his future looked bright indeed. All was going well in the McNamara household until the U.S. entered World War 2.
During WW2, McNamara was a member of the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF as it was called back then, before it became an independent branch of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1947), and, being the whiz kid that he was, wound up being assigned to a department that had one of those disingenuous-sounding government names; the Office of Statistical Control. McNamara’s job was essentially to perform cost-benefit/cost-accounting analyses on the bombing missions being flown against German targets, looking for waste and inefficiency, as per usual. According to him, it didn’t take long to discover that many of the reasons that so many aircraft had to abort missions was because the crews were plain scared; German fighters and other air defenses were taking an increasingly heavier and heavier toll of aircraft, and crews were doubtful that they would complete the 25 missions (later increased to 30, and then 35) required to be released from combat duty. Policies that combined an iron hand with a velvet glove were put into place, and the abort rate plummeted.
It was in this capacity that McNamara eventually served under a man who McNamara would eventually be the boss of; General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay. According to McNamara, LeMay was both as a superior and a subordinate “extraordinarily belligerent. He would jam that damned cigar in his mouth and roam the halls of the Pentagon, looking for a fight.” When asked about the fire-bombing campaign against Japan and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McNamara replied that he was part of a mechanism that recommended the U.S. doing exactly that. Somehow I get the impression that Lemay did not need an Office of Statistical Control to tell him how to do his job, and probably told them so in less than diplomatic terms. Still, a grudging respect for Lemay seems to emanate from McNamara.
McNamara goes on to discuss his time at the Ford Motor Company in the 50’s, and how none of the senior managers and executives there had university degrees. The Whiz Kids went to work and made Ford a sound and solvent company once again. Oddly enough for someone like him, McNamara was a Democrat, and was immediately tapped by JFK to be Secretary of Defense after his (razor-thin) 1960 election victory over Tricky Dick Nixon. McNamara declined several times, saying he was unqualified, but JFK won him over by saying there wasn’t a school to become President of the United States, either.
This is where the film gets most interesting, as McNamara relates what was obviously the most searing period of his career; the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his possession was a gift from JFK; a small calendar of October of 1962, with certain days in bold letters highlighting the days of the Crisis. It was during this time that McNamara began to form his “lessons”, which were related in the film and which he talks about to various degrees:
Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy.
Lesson #2: Rationality alone 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 both often wrong.
Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine 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.
All in all, it’s fair to say that McNamara was in many ways a bit player in the great dramas he was a part of, and in other areas, he was definitely not. However, no matter how one cuts it, McNamara has many thousands of gallons of blood on his hands. He was a particularly large and important cog in the war machine for sure. Some recordings of conversations between him and LBJ even BEFORE the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident that appear in the film make it crystal clear who was the butch and who was the bitch:
March 10, 1964
Johnson: We need somebody over there that can get us some better plans than we've got. What I want is somebody that can lay up some plans to trap these guys and whup the hell out of them. Kill some of them, that's what I want to do.
McNamara: I'll try and bring something back that will meet that objective.
Johnson: Okay, Bob.
To his credit (in my opinion), McNamara went to great lengths to speak face-to-face with his former enemies, and traveled to Vietnam, Cuba, and Russia for that purpose. Several of the comments from those visits were very illuminating:
“What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning.”
"Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you'd had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn't you know that? Don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us." - Xuân Thuỷ, Foreign Minister of North Vietnam
"I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits. There's a quote from T.S. Eliot that I just love:
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.
Now that's in a sense where I'm beginning to be."