Robert McNamara LIFE magazine

The Huffington Post reported today the death of Robert S. McNamara. The Secretary of Defense from 1961 (under JFK and subsequently Lyndon B. Johnson) to 1968. He was five years ago – the focus of one of the most extraordinary films I have seen in recent times. The story of McNamara is barely known this side of the Atlantic, but I became aware of him,  (Wikipedia does a better job than I ever can of surmising his life story) through one of the most fascinating documentaries of the last decade. “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” – this had a limited release in the U.K some five years ago, and subsequently won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2004. (Oh, and the soundtrack from Phillip Glass is outstanding)

It presents candidly McNamara’s amazing career (President of Ford Motor Company, Secretary Of Defense under two Presidents, President of the World Bank), while McNamara himself shows extraordinary candor, from the fear and how close the world came to nuclear destruction with the Cuban Missile Crisis, to explaining how the war in Vietnam became the very thing that he had severe doubts about from 1965 onwards, yet still prosecuted with vigour. The film gives scope for a wise, somewhat regretful man to face up to and consider in very stark terms the decisions he made at the apex of power. As a result it’s riveting stuff, and viewed from our more neutral Trans-Atlantic perspective, is a fitting allegory for a man that by proxy set precedents for the way wars can be an idealistic causes, but futile in their prosecution. It’s no surprise that the film was released at the height of U.S military hubris in Iraq (2003/04) and serves as a warning shot from history of power and hubris gone wrong. How well we might have been served by the people in power taking some of these lessons to heart.

The eleven lessons 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

Here are a couple of clips from the film.

Lesson #1 Empathize with your enemy

Lesson #8 Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning

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