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The Fog of War, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Robert S. McNamara and “The Fog of War”

In the documentary film “The Fog of War,” director Errol Morris offers a portrait of something rarely seen: a political figure striving for honesty. The film has a confessional feel to it, as McNamara recounts a list of “Eleven Lessons” he learned –and then sought to teach- regarding his involvement in the Viet Nam war. If McNamara is to be labeled an ideologue, the term “Realist” does, perhaps, define him best, though it may better suit the younger man, the one making decisions in a time of war, than the older one, who is now looking back on those decisions with equal parts pride and regret. As with most leaders, they are shaped by events at least as much as they shape them; thus, it is difficult to determine exactly how much of McNamara’s ideologies informed the decisions he made, as compared to how the  consequences of those decisions informed his ideologies, both during the war and throughout his life. During his time in the White House, McNamara seemed to fit the textbook definition of a political “Realist,” though by the time he is looking back at his own legacy and the overarching history of the latter half of the 20th Century, a case could certainly be made that he’d transformed –whether he was aware of it or not- into somewhat of a political “Liberal,” as he gained a broader and deeper understanding of the events driving history both then and now.

To some degree, the structure of the documentary is a conceit; while it is ostensibly about “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” these “lessons” appear to be, at least in part, simply snippets of the documented conversation that the director excised as a means of developing a narrative framework for the film. These “lessons” function largely as the filmic equivalent of chapter titles, while the ensuing information in each “chapter” of the film does not necessarily serve primarily to support each stated “lesson” as if each were a collection of theses; often, the “lesson” is mentioned only tangentially as McNamara recounts various anecdotes or points of information. Still, in terms of providing a sense of structure, of thematic continuity, the “Eleven Lessons” efficiently move the narrative forward, as McNamara highlights some key decisions and circumstances of his life both before, during, and after his tenure as Secretary of Defense; a critical examination of the film is likely well-served by following the same trail laid out by the so-called “lessons.”

Perhaps the most significant difficulty in properly analyzing the film is the recognition that the lessons McNamara discusses were not necessarily learned in chronological order; as each is discussed, however, the director also endeavors to delineate a roughly chronological tale of McNamara’s life, though he does often jump around in the timeline. The film consists of a then-contemporary interview conducted with an 85-year-old McNamara, interspersed with archival footage that covers everything from the conclusion of World War I through the events of the Viet Nam conflict and beyond.

“The Fog of War” opens with McNamara making the somewhat striking, if nakedly self-evident, declaration that any military commander who is honest with himself will admit to have made mistakes in the course of wielding military power. The viewer is then thrust immediately into the events of what would come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, wherein the Soviet Union was endeavoring to deliver a complement of nuclear missiles to the island nation of Cuba, mere miles from the southern coast of the United States.

While it is difficult to know what was put into the film and what was left out, much of the documented audio and video recordings of McNamara show a man deeply concerned with the consequences of war, and who often fell on the side of circumspection, of striving to limit the use of military force whenever possible. He is heard on tape warning President Kennedy of his fears about what the consequences might be of attacking Cuba. “I don’t know quite what kind of a world we’ll live in after we’ve struck Cuba,” McNamara offers. “I don’t know quite how we stop at that point.” McNamara is opposed by General Curtis Lemay, who, as McNamara tells it, suggests going into, and basically wiping out, Cuba.

Here, and throughout the film, McNamara is portrayed as a thoughtful man, who strives to see problems from all sides before proceeding, and to exercise military force only after other options have been exhausted. His first lesson, introduced in the discussion of the Missile Crisis, was that we must “empathize with our enemy.” He implores Kennedy to see the situation through the eyes of the Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev. He felt that if Kruschev could save face by telling his people that he had saved Cuba from U.S. destruction, that Kruschev would then turn back from the face-off with the Naval blockade of Cuba; ultimately, McNamara (and any others in the administration who supported this approach) were right, and Kruschev did indeed order the Soviet ships to return from Cuba without delivering the nuclear warheads.

The next lesson was that “Rationality Will Not Save Us.” As a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara became convinced that “the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations,” and further, that it was as much luck as it was good decision-making that saved us from nuclear war at that time. McNamara had every reason to be concerned; as he recounts it, the U.S. had a 17-to-1 advantage in strategic nuclear weapons. McNamara’s pragmatic nature told him that such an advantage could be maintained with arms agreements, while many others in the administration believed preemptory nuclear attacks were necessary to ensure that the Soviets never caught up in what was becoming a seemingly inevitable arms race.

Lesson Three: “There’s Something Beyond One’s Self.” Little time in the film is spent here, yet this lesson had the ring of truth; McNamara certainly seems genuine in his belief in public service. There is clearly something to be said for putting one’s money where one’s mouth is; McNamara took a pay cut on the order of several mllion dollars when, at the behet of the newly-anointed President Kennedy, he accepted the position of Secretary of Defense, leaving behind the helming of Ford Motors after only five weeks as President of that company. Money isn’t everything, of course, but it is hard to argue against McNamara’s sincerity about public service. He claims to have picked up many of the beliefs that informed his views on such things through college courses on topics like ethics and logic. Again, the question of cause and effect arises; did he take the lasses because he was a born public servant, or did the classes make the man? Either way, the result is the same; it is this pragmatism that will, over and over again, define the course of McNamara’s life.

The next two lessons, “Maximize Efficiency” and “Proportionality Should Be a Guideline in War,” are closely interrelated. General Lemay, the military Yang to McNamara’s civilian Yin, focused on “target destruction” as a means of measuring success. McNamara discusses “proportionality,” wondering aloud if it was really necessary to kill “50 to 90% of the people in sixty-seven Japanese cities –and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs” in order to fulfill the U.S. objectives in the war. He further recounts the scientific focus on the “efficiency” of the B-29 bomber, with charts, graphs, and statistics that measured how deadly the plane was at various flight altitudes versus how many losses were taken y anti-aircraft measures of the enemy.

All these various efforts to “Get the Data” –Lesson Six- were another hallmark of McNamara’s approach to every decision he made. Whether it was dropping human skulls down fifty-foot shafts to gather crash-test data for Ford, or creating IBM punch-cards for each applicant to the Air Force “Statistical Control” division, McNamara was slavishly devoted to facts and figures, and to the notion of applying, in his terms, “the best judgment” in every case, from designing seat-belts for Ford to hiring military personnel to serve in the highest echelons of the armed forces.

As the film’s chronology traces the beginnings of the Viet Nam conflict, McNamara asserts that “Belief and Seeing are Both Often Wrong.” He discusses two supposed attacks on U.S. ships in the Pacific, noting that, in hindsight, neither attack might have actually happened. He seems to be making a point about “the fog of war,” and how decisions made in the moment are often predicated on faulty conclusions, and that this is an inherent part of the nature of war.

There are other sides to this particular lesson: for one, believing and seeing are both often intentionally wrong; misinformation isn’t always a result of misunderstanding. McNamara recounts his own involvement in downplaying the public perception of the true nature of the Viet Nam war, while also working to overcome Lyndon Johnson’s firmly-cemented decision to ramp up U.S. involvement. Beliefs are also sometimes based on the complex misperceptions of cultural differences; the Viet Namese people viewed the U.S. as invaders, as colonialists, who were simply replacing the earlier French colonials. The people of Viet Nam viewed their struggle as an internal war, a civil war, while the U.S. viewed it as a small piece of the larger Cold War that we were silently waging with the Soviet Union and the expansion of Communism.

For reasons such as these, and many others, the next Lesson is “Be Prepared to Re-Examine Your Reasoning.” This is among the most significant of all the lessons McNamara imparts; far too often, leaders will refuse to reconsider decisions or abandon plans out of sheer obstinacy, while McNamara firmly believed –or at least came to believe- that reasoning must not be applied only at the beginning of the military process, but at every stage throughout. He makes a further point, a point that at first glance seems somewhat tangential to the specific lesson, but one that will, in many ways, define the man he was at the end of his life:

“We are the strongest nation in the world today. I don’t believe we should ever apply our economic, political, or military power unilaterally…if we had followed that rule in Viet Nam, we wouldn’t have been there.”

McNamara could rightly assert that, to a degree, he always felt that way about unilateralism: the audio recordings at the beginning of the film, wherein he is already offering Kennedy suggestion on how to get out of Viet Nam before the real war had even begun, speak to his temperance in such matters. Clearly, though, he compartmentalized his belief systems with logical ruthlessness; he viewed himself as an instrument of the President he served, and was fiercely loyal, even as he reflected back decades later. He quite obviously disagreed with nearly every decision Johnson made regarding Viet Nam, yet still defended the man and his actions, asserting that Johnson had a much bigger picture to consider than just Viet Nam. There were concerns not just about the so-called “domino theory” of smaller nation toppling one after another to Communism, but about possible was with nations like China or even the Soviets, who might view any recalcitrance on the part of the U.S. as military weakness or a lack of political fortitude.

In hindsight, we know that there was much bluster from both sides, and that the Soviets were not nearly the threat we thought they were (Safire, 2006). It is exactly that point that makes so many of McNamara’s lessons resonant: our beliefs are often wrong, and we must be prepared, always, to reexamine our reasoning.

The concluding lessons of the film speak to the moral ambiguity not just of war, but of human nature itself. “In Order to Do Good, You May Have to Engage in Evil” was a lesson McNamara learned largely from General Lemay, a man with whom he seemed to often disagree, while still reserving for him a significant respect. At one point, McNamara reflects on the notion that, were the U.S. to have lost World War II, Lemay’s firebombings of Japan –and McNamara’s role in them- could have left them both vulnerable to charges of being War Criminals.

“Never Say Never,” McNamara asserts, addressing, it seems, some of the moral ambiguity he must have felt then, and clearly felt at the time of the interview, about his involvement in Viet Nam. Time and again the director offers examples of McNamara’s efforts to reign in the military actions, to offer suggestions first to Kennedy and then to Johnson about how to best limit, and even conclude, the U.S.’ involvement in Viet Nam.

Yet as the war continued to escalate, McNamara continued to harness his logic, reason, and intellect in the service of killing, a fact that seems to weigh heavily on him as he nears the end of his life, and that fueled the vitriol of his harshest critics (Scheuerman, 2009). Ultimately, though, his views on Viet Nam brought his political career to an end. In 1967, he proffered a “secret” memo to President Johnson, clearly stating his belief that “the course of the war was wrong” and proclaiming that the U.S. must reconsider every aspect of their involvement in it. Almost instantly, he was gone; still, Johnson gave him a lavish departure ceremony and awarded him the Medal of Freedom. In the end, said McNamara, “Johnson couldn’t persuade me, and I couldn’t persuade him.”

McNamara concludes his Lessons by noting that “You Can’t Change Human Nature,” acknowledging that conflict and war are inevitable parts of life. It is here, near the end of the movie, that the titular phrase finally appears, as McNamara declares:

“What the Fog of War means is that war is so complex, it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. I’m not so naïve or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war…we’re not going to change human nature anytime soon.”

In labeling McNamara ideologically, do we see him as a “Realist”? Clearly, he viewed himself as one; even towards the end of his life he publicly described himself as such (McNamara, 2002). A Realist, as it has been described, sees the world in fairly stark terms. The primary global actors are states, and the primary functions of these states are to interact among each other politically, economically, and militarily. Realists see the most important functions of states as the acquisition of material wealth and military power, in the service of protecting their self-interests (Klarevas, 2004). Realism has been the guiding political ideology of the United States –and most of the world- for at least the bulk of the 20th Century, if not for its entire history.

Political Liberalism, which is often portrayed as the “opposite” of Realism, takes a more nuanced view of how the world operates on a geo-political scale. It sees the agents of global activity as numbering far more than simply an aggregate of nations, adding a rogue’s gallery of private and public agencies, of individuals of varying political and social pedigree, and of a variety of factors beyond just the political and military functions of nations (Legro, Marvscik; 2001), . In Liberalism “a rock star like Bono can have just as much impact as a politician like Russian President Vladimir Putin (Klarevas, 2004) .

The Bush administration, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, began to –perhaps somewhat flippantly- refer to the idea of a “new Realism.” National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, a staunch Realist of the old school, publicly admitted that her view, the “Realist” view, failed to adequately take into account the actions of terrorist actors who operated unbound by states (Klarevas, 2004). At the same time, however, the Bush administration sought to respond the WTC attack through “conventional” (read: military) means, adhering almost unthinkingly to an outmoded model. Appearing to want it both ways, however, the label of “Liberalism,” having been made into a political expletive, was eschewed in favor of the “intellectually incoherent” label of “New Realism” (Legro, Morascik, 2001).

McNamara saw himself as an agent of his masters; his role was to offer first his advice and then his fealty (McNamara, 2002). He operated at the very epicenter of Realism, serving as Secretary of Defense at the height of the Cold War, yet eventually concluded that unilateralism –a mainstay of Realism- was simply unacceptable in the contemporary world. Further, he understood that the world was no longer –and never would be again- the stark, black-and-white stage upon which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. unfurled their displays of “superpower,” but was now (and perhaps always had been) a far more byzantine and motley aggregate of actors and actions that shaped the course of human events. There are those who still proclaim him a staunch Realist (Schmidt, 2010), but the truth seems more complex than that.

If the phrase “New Realism” is to have any meaning, it may be better applied to Robert McNamara than George Bush. Applied to the former it recognizes the complexities of a changing geo-political landscape; to the latter, it’s little more than a new name for an old ideology.

The question remains, and is perhaps unanswerable, of how much McNamara shaped his life and how much his life shaped him. He was, at the end, no longer a “Realist,” nor was he a “Liberal;” he was simply a flawed and contradictory and humbled man, haunted by horrors most men would never see, who somehow still held out hope for the future of mankind.

Works Cited

Louis Klarevas.  (2004). Political Realism. Harvard International Review, 26(3), 18-23. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 736543901).

Legro, Jeffrey W &  Moravcsik, Andrew. (2001). Faux realism. Foreign Policy,(125), 80-82.  Retrieved October 29, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 74623248).

McNamara, Robert, Public Lecture, U.S. Foreign and Defence Policy for the 21st Century

Delivered 7 May 2002, text available online, Retrieved 20 October 2010

Safire, William.  (2006, December). REALISM. New York Times Magazine,6.20.  Retrieved October 29, 2010, from Research Library Core. (Document ID: 1187014751).

Scheuerman, William E. Hans Morgenthau:Realism and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. 17 June 2010

Schmidt, Ted. “The Fog of War and gospel clarity.” Catholic New Times 6 June 2004: 17. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2010.

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