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A film worth watching

January 22, 2007

I just watched “The fog of war” with Robert S. McNamara and found it really insightful, not only with regard to the obvious parallels of conflicts now and those of the past, but also with regard to human nature in general.    

A fairly good summary and analysis can be found here.  The film covers Robert’s life from his role in WWII through Vietnam, and is organized by the director around 11 lessons.

  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.

While the full extent of his life experiences were certainly compelling in and of themselves, I was most drawn to lessons 1 and 11 as I think they were closely related within the context of the film, and very applicable as lessons in our daily lives.

In the first lesson, McNamara was suggesting that you will be more successful if you can understand what your opponent is thinking and feeling, what drives their motivations and how they are likely to react to your planned actions.  A more effective strategy to bring about the desired outcome can then be created.  I considered this directly applicable not only in time of conflict, but also when crafting a presentation or trying to drive your particular agenda in personal and work life.    For daily usage – substitute “Opponent” with “audience”.

In number 11, McNamara found that 30 years after Vietnam, the leaders on both sides still didn’t understand the true objectives of each other, or believe what each stated their objectives to have been.   My take away from this was probably not what was intended in the film.  My thought was that much conflict can be avoided if we can truly understand what others want to achieve, and this may involve helping them to define it, as they may not really be clear on it themselves.   I see parallels between the conflict in Vietnam, and the situation today in the middle east.  In the film, it was portrayed that in hindsight, the US entered the conflict to stop the spread of communism, while the Vietnamese believed the US was there as an occupying and colonial power.  When should other countries enter the conflict?  Consider how other countries likely viewed the US revolutionary war.  Those that aided the colonies did so as an opportunity to advance their agendas vs the British.  Isn’t that true even today?    One can get almost paralyzed debating the morals and ethics of advancing an agenda at the expense of another.  In the end, as true of all life – life is competitive.   

In any event, an unclear understanding of the situation will produce a murky conflict, once begun, the nature of the conflict often departs for the issues that initially founded it, and takes on a life of it’s own.  As a result, it is increasingly difficult to resolve as the objectives become less clear.  I found this to be evident and applicable to other areas of life and on different scales.  

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