Preposterous Universe

Sunday, March 28, 2004
The Fog of War

I finally had a chance to see The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and (much of the) Johnson administrations. It was a great film, the kind you could talk about endlessly. I'll try not to do that, but a few things are irresistible.

First, the obvious parallels with our current mess in Iraq. McNamara was Defense Secretary during the escalation of the Vietnam war, so the connections are inevitable (and have been commented to death already). One does wonder what Rumsfeld would make of the movie. The most unbelievable moment to me was the account of a 1995 meeting between McNamara and the former Vietnamese foreign minister, to discuss what lessons could be learned. The minister explained to McNamara that the conflict was a civil war, that they were historic enemies of the Chinese, and that the US could not have "won" because the Vietnamese were fighting against a colonial power and would never give up. Amazingly, McNamara claimed to be shocked by these revelations (in 1995!). Cluelessness about the culture we are interfering with must be one of the most common themes of US intervention. That's the one very obvious connection to the Iraq adventure, which in many ways is a very different story.

Second, although Vietnam dominated the movie, the opening bit about the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most gripping. Given the insanity on all sides, it's miraculous that the world escaped without a full-blown nuclear war. McNamara quotes Castro as saying that if the US had invaded, he would have launched all the nuclear weapons on the island, knowing full well that the consequence would have been complete annihilation of Cuba. He also quotes our very own Gen. Curtis LeMay, who thought we should quickly launch an all-out pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union before they could catch up to our nuclear arsenal. As I said, miraculous.

Third, and perhaps the only point that hasn't already been beaten to death, the movie rehearsed a tired critique of the concept of "rationality." A common criticism of McNamara when he was Defense Secretary, which is trotted out essentially unmodified in the movie, is that he and his staff (the "best and the brightest") were super-intelligent and supremely rational, yet continued to get us into all sorts of trouble. Clearly, we conclude, this rationality stuff isn't all it's cracked up to be. Well, rubbish. Rationality is never to blame for bad decisions, any more than arithmetic is to blame when you can't pay your bills. Rationality can tell you how to achieve certain goals through certain actions. If the result turns out to be a mess, there are two possibilities: the goals weren't the right ones, or your rationality was simply faulty. McNamara calls Castro "rational," just before he relates the anecdote that Castro was willing to have Cuba be completely destroyed. Sorry, the mistake there is not an overzealous application of instrumental reason; it's just being stupid. Rationality doesn't tell you that preventing the fall of dominoes in Southeast Asia is worth any possible cost in human lives; your nonsensical value system is telling you that, and rationality simply allows you to implement this craziness efficiently.

I'm sure that, if the situation in the Middle East deteriorates (even further), pundits will point to Rumsfeld and his crew and accuse them of being too rational, not sensitive enough to human needs and foibles, as if those qualities were somehow in opposition. This history-repeating-itself thing grows tiresome awfully fast.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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