The Fog of War (2003)

Just saw The Fog of War (2003), a documentary of Robert S. McNamara’s time as US Secretary of Defense, and was blown away by the behind-the-scenes look at what goes on during troublesome times. What strikes me is how lonely, how isolated, these people who hold key positions of responsibility must feel. Sure, there are plenty of people advising you, but in the end, if you’re the one making the decision, it’s an utterly heavy responsibility that is solely yours.

How do you decide to kill 100,000 people, or even less than that? Could you live with yourself afterward? Can you make a decision like that even when there’s a chance the data is faulty and/or its interpretation is wrong? How many politicians currently vying for top spots would be ready to make these decisions? Do they know that’s what they might have to do? Do they know everyone else around them will fade into the background and the decision will hang, like a millstone, around their necks? When do you decide to cut the cord?

I’m also impressed by the need to be more forgiving of the decision-makers of today. I can’t imagine the pressures of power have changed. If anything, they’re even more stressful nowadays. Yet so few people take the time to understand the issues before they start criticizing. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Robert S. McNamara makes a very good point in the documentary. One of his principles is that you should empathize with your enemy, in order to understand him. I’m not saying politicians are our enemies, but I think we should take the time to really understand where they’re coming from and the situations they’re facing before we, too, declare war against them, and yell for a change of office. The fact is, everyone makes good and bad decisions, and when the pressure of office is on, it’s even harder to sort through all of the conflicting information and do what’s right. You’re going to get some things right, and some things wrong, no matter what. We’re human, and we err. We can’t trust our senses and our perception of events is often wrong. It’s a wonder we don’t mess up more often.

What’s also true is that war as we know it is no more. It’s been evolving into some shapeless mass that rears its ugly head here and there, only to disappear before we can bonk it on the head and dispatch it. The frontlines of war are non-existent. We can no longer point out the enemy by their uniform, and Iraq is a perfect example of it. I say this because some people say there are plenty of “lessons learned” that could be applied. Perhaps, in some aspects of war, they prove useful. But when war has changed so much, and we still don’t know our enemies like we should, can we fault our leaders for making the wrong decisions? A lot of criticism out there is mere political posturing. We, as responsible citizens, should do our homework before we pick up the next critical catchphrase and hurl it at whoever’s in power.

I’m left with a feeling of surprise after watching the movie, and it’s because of this: political and world events are so complex, and wars are such ugly beasts, that I’m amazed we haven’t bombed ourselves out of existence yet. I’m thankful that calmer minds have prevailed, and that we’re still alive.