December 27, 2003

Fog of War I just

Fog of War

I just saw this excellent Errol Morris documentary yesterday. Fog of War is an exploration of the moral ambiguities surrounding armed conflict undertaken through the prism of a series of interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The film proceeds roughly in chronological order chronicling McNamara's life in the context of eleven lessons.

They are:

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 both often 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.

As you might imagine, this isn't your typical Hollywood fare. For what it's worth, I highly recommend it, particularly because (somewhat surprisingly, at least to me) not too many cheap anti-McNamara points were being scored. I found it, by the standards of this documentary genre, a pretty nuanced and judicious examination of a complex man navigating hugely complicated national security issues.

As I saw it at the Angelika, there were occasional guffaws emiting from the audience at the predictable junctures where Rummy-McNamara (read: exagerrated Iraq as Vietnam) analogies were (if unfairly) easy to draw.

Still, all but the most partisan individuals will have left the theater appreciating the complex moral issues at play. Issues and ethical questions that still clearly haunt McNamara to this day.

A final thought. Regular readers know that I have often tried to put the lie to Iraq as Vietnam analogies that often appear (thinly veiled) in places like the New York Times.

But one point related to this in the movie is worth keeping in mind. In the mid-90's, McNamara goes back to Vietnam to talk to senior leaders of the Viet Cong who had been his counterparts on the other side of the conflict.

The gulf between what the Americans thought they were doing (defending freedom, containing totalitarianism, protecting the Vietnamese from the Soviet yoke and so on) and the Vietnamese perspective (Americans as the latest colonialist occupiers, willingness to fight the invader to the bitter end) bears remembering as we proceed in Iraq.

Not because the situations are directly analogous--they aren't. But because it serves as a cautionary tale re: the limits of human reason and how that impacts a judicious appraisal by each belligerent of the other party's goals.

We know, of course, that we didn't go into Iraq for the oil or to stay for twenty years in some neo-colonialist land grab.
And most Iraqis, I think, know that too.

But we have to remain very sensitive to the potential for large gulfs (in terms of misunderstandings of the other side's intentions) to emerge. Such gulfs can obviously rear their heads in such complex interventions--particularly when they drag on for longer than expected.

Such after all, is the 'fog of war.'

Note: A quick note to let readers know I'm off traveling to Brazil through the week of January 5th. Minimal blogging until then. Apologies.

Posted by Gregory at December 27, 2003 04:41 PM

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