Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Fog of War

Finally, I got around to watching the The Fog of War, the 2003 documentary film based on an extended interview with Robert S. McNamara.

It has been criticised for not pushing the technocrat McNamara to confront his culpability in letting the Vietnam War continue. He argues that a) it was the president's decision, and that b) as ex-defense secretary and head of the World Bank he could not interfere or express himself even after leaving/being ejected from office.

It does, however, provide some -- at least for me -- interesting insights in to the relationships between JFK (and later LBJ) and McNamara and other key advisors. I was particularly interested to hear recordings of JFK's ExComm talking about the Cuban crisis and the fact that former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, was able to sway JFK's thinking on Khrushchev's motives.

McNamara frankly admits that this "empathy with the enemy", one of the 11 lessons which film maker Errol Morris extracts from McNamara's recollections, was lacking in Vietnam.

Some quotes:

-- Quoting Khrushchev on Cuba: "We and you ought not to pull on the ends of a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied."
-- "There will be no learning period with nuclear weapons; you make one mistake and you destroyed a nation."
-- "We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War and not what they saw it as: a civil war. We did not know them well enough to empathise with them."

And finally, this one:

Describing how his wife-to-be needed to order stationery before their wedding day and asked him what his middle initial S stood for:

McNamara: "It's Strange."
Wife: "I know it's strange. But what is it?"


Sergio said...

Interesting insights Tom. I am sure you will find the Cuban Missile Crisis unit and group activity very enlightening as well.

I guess one reason that JFK could empathise with his Soviet enemy is due to MAD. You start thinking more than twice when you're facing an enemy with 'similar' destructive capabilities (i.e., deterrence). It's a bit harder when you're dealing in a completely asymmetrical conflict where one's military is technology-drive and intent on destroying the enemy. However, that becomes very hard when dealing with guerrilla warfare...frustration kicks in and you suddenly feel even less empathy than before (hence, for example, Oper. Rolling Thunder).

We'll talk about this in the unit discussions eventually.


Rex Michael Dillon said...

McNamara's confession: "We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War and not what they saw it as: a civil war. We did not know them well enough to empathise with them." is a great insight.

I saw this in the theater when it came out. He also spoke a Zellerbach hall since he was a UC Berkeley alum.

The thing that I thought interesting is to see how the filmed allowed us to see the development of his thought process, as well as how he processed and applied information. I am no Star Trekie, but this guy was Spock. In relation to a post by Dan Ford about bombing, and how it takes a professor to come up with stuff, I say no, it takes a mind like McNamara's. He is very intelligent no doubt. The precision in his planning leaves me comparing him to those that engineered the train schedules in Germany during the war to keep the trains rolling like clockwork to the camps.