Monday, 6 July 2009

Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara


Lesson #1 Empathize with your ememy.
Lesson #2 Rationality will not save us.
Lesson #3 There's something beyond oneself.
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 re-examine your reasoning.
Lesson #9 To do good you may need to engage in evil.
Lesson #10 NEVER SAY NEVER.
Lesson #11 You can't change human nature.


I'm not American. Nor do I really wish to be, because I happen to like being Canadian. But there are some people I still consider to be true American heroes, people who I respect and would try to emulate were I an American citizen, and who, even though I am not an American citizen, I try to emulate a little anyways.

At the top of this list is Robert McNamara. One-time president of the Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defence under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and president of the World Bank, he is almost certainly one of the most influential men of the twentieth century, both in business and in politics.

Three years ago, I watched The Fog of War in a class about the theories of war, peace and conflict resolution. I ended up writing a paper on the film, but more so on him on who McNamara was, and the way he thought and the principles behind so many of the (often unpopular) decisions that he made. He was involved in some of the most newsworthy events of the past century, among them the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War (there's a reason why it was often called McNamara's War). His support for nuclear proliferation ( in the 1960s) and his subsequent call for nuclear disarmament (beginning in 1982) baffled some, but his reasoning behind this change of opinion was based on his perception that needs had changed and that the original reasons behind building a second-strike capacity had been forgotten and nuclear proliferation was no longer a defense tactic, but something that was building increased fear, resentment and mistrust between the two Cold War superpowers. He was not afraid to think differently, and that was most likely one of the reasons why he was so influential. He revolutionized aspects of the auto industry, the American military, and the way in which the U.S.A. engaged in war. His decisions often earned him as many enemies as he earned friends, but his many accomplishments cannot be ignored.

In addition to a 7-year stint at thePentagon and a 13 year tenure as President of the World Bank, McNamara McNamara wrote ten books, six of which I have read in whole or in part. My favourites were In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lesson of Vietnam and Wilson’s ghost: reducing the risk of conflict, killing, and catastrophe in the 21st century. If you have some time this summer, read something he wrote, even if it's only "Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance" the article he co-wrote for the spring 1982 issue of Foreign Affairs. Even if you don't agree with him about anything, he is worth reading simply because of how much he influenced the course of modern history.

If you haven't seen The Fog of War, rent it. It should be available at most public libraries and many commercial video rental stores. It's one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It's two hours of your life that you will gladly have wasted.

Rest in Peace, Robert.

6 comments:

Jess said...

I have read some of his books and I think he comes across as quite personable and even-handed.

But I then find it hard to reconcile that with some of the decisions he made in regard of Vietnam.

Having said that, I don't think anyone comes out of Vietnam looking good.

Susan said...

Wow, we lost another giant from the Vietnam era. McNamara was not afraid to change his mind, when the situations changed. I just wish Vietnam had never happened,but, if it hadn't, I wonder if the US would be the country it is today.

Val said...

I am with Susan re: her opinion on the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara was considered an architect of that war, but the admirable thing about him was that he acknowledged his mistakes...he took responsibility, something people do not do very often...

I also agree with Jess, I don't think anyone did come out of Vietnam looking good.

Kudos to you, Mer, for acknowledging a man that expressed both sides of a deeply divided country...

ChinoX said...

RIP Robert McNamara... Somehow i think he re-examined his reasoning... No war is justified, worst if it's unilaterally started. His eleven lessons shows us a lot of experience, specially when he realizes that many things which he believed where wrong, but the most important, he denounced it and don't remained silent. Nice post! Greetings from Guatemala City.

Anonymous said...

The DVD I just bought in the ramsh (cheapies).
Going to have a look tonight

Anonymous said...

Like I said I will see it tonight (i am non american), but I don't find the 11 lessons strongly defined.
You'd expect something clearer, or stronger or at least that the maxims that are selfexplanatory.


Lesson #1 Empathize with your enemy.
* Makes sense and was and is not at all common understanding.
SO that's a good one.

Lesson #2 Rationality will not save us.
* yeah ? Requires something more.
Up till present day ALL policies of governments and companies are based on cold -mostly narrow minded- rationality.
Not even Obama's administration changes from this.

Lesson #3 There's something beyond oneself.
*Huh? Do you mean "G/god" ?
Not clear.

Lesson #4 Maximize efficiency.
*Open door.
Nothing special, and actually more befitting a management seminar.
Henry Ford must have understood this already. Thus should not be included in McNamara's "findings".

Lesson #5 Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
*That brings something. Especially in the light of the Vietnam war.
Putin/Russians still don't abide by this (Georgia 2008).


Lesson #6 Get the data.
*Also open door.
Probably he would mean despite having control over top intelligence information, still question everything, be doubtful and inquisitive. Don't take presented info for truth.
(surely he can define this maxim a bit smarter ?).

Lesson #7 Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
*See above.

Lesson #8 Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.
*Why not stepping it up ? DO re-exame your reasonings from time to time, and preferably while you are still in office. After office it is meaningless.

Lesson #9 To do good you may need to engage in evil.
*Can be stepped up a bit too:
Evil/harmful engagements are oftentimes elementary to reach good and pristine goals.

Lesson #10 NEVER SAY NEVER.
*Why in capitals ?
Also not so special maxim.

Lesson #11 You can't change human nature.
*More befitting a maxim about social, sexual, relational expertise.
Perhaps he means changing human views is impossible or rather difficult ? (politics and religion are topics with which you can't convert/convince the other..idea).

Ah well.