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Tuesday, February 01, 2005


the fog of war

i recently viewed the haunting errol morris biopic of robert mcnamara titled the fog of war.

mcnamara's eleven lessons are the maxims of terrible experience, and how he illustrates them by recounting his life i found to be stunning documentary.

Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy.
Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us.
Lesson #3: There's something beyond one's self.
Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency.
Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
Lesson #6: Get the data.
Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.
Lesson #9: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.
Lesson #10: Never say never.
Lesson #11: You can't change human nature.
but the maxims are not the story, applicable though they are to this reviling age of american hubris and militaristic idealism. mcnamara is.

mcnamara is a powerful man even in his winter years, and he is often ugly. he candidly admits to behaving, along with curtis lemay, as a war criminal during the firebombing of japan in world war two -- and forwards a notion of exoneration in moral relativism. he rightly notes the difficulty of morality in war, how such slaughter could even be as necessary as it was evil, the irreducible complexity of world events and the limitation of individual reason in understanding them.

but those realizations haven't forgiven him. the devastation that such evil has wrought upon him -- a self-described "sensitive human being" -- is apparent in his words, his tone and his eyes. his public life, lived as a sort of nietzschean superman, doing unto others with calculation out of a sense of noble duty to high purpose but little happiness, has gutted him in a profound way. he still cannot face the questions of his feelings regarding what he was a part of, what his actions represent.

one imagines a man as vigorous as mcnamara must be familiar with the philosophical exploration of morality in the western tradition. he must understand himself to be a romantic, accursed and solitary, noble in effort and tragic in failure and success alike. he himself calls his years in the white house a profoundly enhancing experience, even as he blames the unrelievable tension of them for the death of his wife.

the shadows of his face on film demonstrate a wizened sadness -- but one wonders if he realizes fully, even now at 85, the depth of the personal loss he has sustained for refusing the moral compass that could have replaced his amoral relativism, for rejecting a life of some measure of modest happiness for that which he once believed was heroic and noble.

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