Documentaries I Like: The Fog of War (featuring Robert McNamara)

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Robert McNamara died today, at the age of 93. McNamara was US Secretary of Defense through most of the 1960's, overseeing the start of the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other major Cold War crises. Back in 2003, documentarian Errol Morris made a film called The Fog of War featuring McNamara, and pretty much only McNamara -- literally sitting in a chair, reviewing the history of various wars, combined with archival video and audio.

The Fog of War - documentary posterThe Fog of War is truly fascinating. I don't use that word lightly (not here, at least). It's the kind of film you stare at, and just wonder: "Why didn't I know about this before?" How is it possible that I went through a modern college education and basically knew nothing about McNamara, very little about the Cuban Missile Crisis, only a smattering about Vietnam, and so on? I think the documentary itself addresses this question -- McNamara himself says we should look back. That's why he agreed to do the film, and why he wrote his 1995 memoir (which is apparently fairly similar to the film). McNamara says we should examine our history and try to draw lessons from it. It's not often that we, as busy human beings, sit back and make a concerted effort to make sense of what we've done. McNamara and Morris do just that in The Fog of War, and the lessons McNamara comes up with are pretty good. Here they are:

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

1. Empathize with your enemy

2. Rationality will not save us

3. There's something beyond one's self

4. Maximize efficiency

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war

6. Get the data

7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil

10. Never say never

11. You can't change human nature

But are these lessons for war, or lessons for business?

Well, McNamara had experience with both; in addition to his US government jobs, he was the first non-Ford-family president of Ford Motor Company. McNamara was a key face of the military-industrial complex in the twentieth century, and his reliance on data, efficiency, and command structures has clear roots in both the military and the manufacturing business. Now, whether this is good or bad I can't say for sure -- but it's definitely interesting, and it's deeply interesting to hear what McNamara himself has to say about it. In The Fog of War, we see McNamara as a bit of a geek, someone who cares about knowledge (at least in retrospect), who has a very thorough understanding of what he did and why. He might have been wrong (and he admits as much), and he certainly made mistakes, but boy, he has sure thought about what he did. That's why you should watch this film -- to see a smart guy, whose decisions had a huge effect on human lives, looking back on those decisions and trying to learn from them.

Representative quote: "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'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations."

The entire movie is actually available on Google Video for free, in super-crappy quality. Here it is (though, fair warning, this will probably be removed by Sony Pictures shortly):

You can also rent it from Netflix, buy it from Amazon (only ten bucks!), listening to a Morris/McNamara lecture, learn more about Morris's Interrotron, or watch the trailer.

Final fun fact: McNamara's middle initial S stands for "Strange." Really.

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July 6, 2009 - 2:12pm
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