Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

On March 3rd, the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government hosted a talk “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, based on the 2004 Academy Award-winning documentary film by Errol Morris. Robert McNamara himself was present at this talk. Moderator Graham Allison, Director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Professor Ernest May showed clips from the film, and asked the former U.S. Secretary of Defense questions based on what had been shown.

Robert McNamara (HBS ’39) was a central and oftentimes controversial figure in American politics during the height of the Cold War and was also a key figure in the formulation of US nuclear strategy spanning two administrations (Kennedy and Johnson) over seven years (1961-1968).

Having been labeled everything from arrogant, coldly analytical, whiz kid, and brilliant replica watches, to having the Vietnam War called ‘McNamara’s War,’ the 87-year-old McNamara provided a candid, introspective analysis of the world events that occurred during his tenure and the decisions he made, and the advice and lessons he derived in retrospect.

Of the many critical events during his time as Defense Secretary, two of the most historically poignant events were the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. McNamara warns, “Having looked over the nuclear precipice, we don’t want to go there again…the human race needs to think more about killing and conflict in the 21st century.” Moderator Allison commented that the choices faced by the US government in the 1960s mirror the types of choices we face today: “How do we interpret intelligence assessments? Is there a US moral imperative to restore Haiti?”

In discussing nuclear war and conflict, McNamara went on to detail that the human race has not grappled with the rules of war. He has never seen an official paper that states “what is legal and not legal in war…should you kill 100,000 people in one night?” (in reference to the firebombing of Tokyo during the US-Japanese war). On striking the fine balance between making decisions and acting in a crisis versus gathering more information, McNamara said, “please take time to make certain you are correct and recognize you may be wrong” and went on to say that in military operations “the variables are greater and the causal relationships less clear….error should have been anticipated.” On geo-political issues facing the world today, McNamara felt that Americans are less empathetic and lack the ability, both in terms of language and historical knowledge, to understand other people and nations.

The film //, Fog of War, is built around archival footage, and is a very open and introspective interview with the energetic McNamara, providing a rich and fascinating peek into the decisions and events that shaped the world stage in the 1960s. The film is structured around eleven lessons as conceptualized by filmmaker Errol Morris. The Brookings Institute provided a list of the detailed lessons directly from McNamara himself, which are as follows:

1. The human race will not eliminate war in this century, but it can reduce the brutality of war-the level of killing-by adhering to the principles of a “just war,” and in particular the principle of proportionality.

2. The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.

3. The US is the most powerful nation in the world-economically, politically and militarily-and is likely to remain so for decades to come. But the US is not omniscient and if it cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and values of the merits of its proposed use of that power, it should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely event that it has to defend the continental US, Alaska and Hawaii.

4. Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign and defense policy, but it is possible to agree on establishing a major goal of US foreign policy, and indeed of foreign policies across the globe, namely, the avoidance of carnage in this century – as opposed to the 160 million deaths caused by conflict in the 20th century.

5. The US, the richest nation in the world, has failed in its responsibility to its own poor-and to the disadvantaged across the world- by failing to help advance their welfare in the most fundamental terms of nutrition, literacy, health, and employment.

6. Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course, they have responsibilities to stockholders but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers, and the society as a whole.

7. President Kennedy believed a primary responsibility of a President-indeed the primary responsibility of a President -is to keep the nation out of war if at all possible.

8. War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations. Economic sanctions are rarely effective. A preferred alternative is to build a system of jurisprudence-based on the International Criminal Court that the US has refused to support-which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity and thereby, add to weapons of deterrence.

9. “If we don’t deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we should develop a sense of empathy – I don’t mean ‘sympathy’, but rather understanding – to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.”

10. One of the greatest dangers the world faces today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction, as a result of the breakdown of the non-proliferation regime, and the US is contributing to this breakdown.

11. The US is failing to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions and certainly no military solutions. At times, “we may have to live with an imperfect world, untidy world.”

The phrase “fog of war” refers to the complexity of war where it is so hard to comprehend all the variables and where “we kill people unnecessarily.” McNamara ended by advising the audience, “Many of you in the room will spend your lives being leaders…you should feel an obligation to
identifying mistakes and passing them on…every leader should learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.”

After receiving his MBA, McNamara returned to Harvard Business School in 1940 to become an Assistant Professor. In 1943 he became a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and served in the UK, India, China, and the Pacific.

He was awarded the Legion of Merit, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and went on inactive duty in 1946.

Upon leaving the Air Force, McNamara joined the Ford Motor Company. He was elected President of the company in 1960. Five weeks later, at the request of President-elect John F. Kennedy, McNamara agreed to serve as Secretary of Defense. He became President of the World Bank in 1968, retiring in 1981.

In retirement, McNamara has served on a number of boards, writes and speaks on many current political issues, including world hunger, East-West relations, and nuclear arms. He has been awarded many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Johnson. Most recently he authored In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

March 15, 2004
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