12 April 2010

Throughout the MyWar exhibition, FACT will be publishing guest blog posts from looking at war and politics in the media. Matthew Taylor is a "twentysomething lawyer with interests in arts, music, philosophy, politics, and sci/tech..."
If any political leader of the past century was qualified to offer lessons on war, it was Robert S. McNamara. As the longest serving US Secretary of Defence, under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, McNamara was a consummate Cold Warrior, but was also responsible for fundamental changes in the US's approach to defence.

His career as Secretary of Defence was defined by Vietnam, and it was for that war that he was most remembered - and hated. In 1972, four years after his resignation, a ferry passenger tried to throw him overboard, later telling an interviewer, "I just wanted to confront him on Vietnam". Ironically, it had been McNamaraís realisation that the war could not be won, and his recommendations to President Johnson based on this, which led to his departure. Afterwards, people would question whether McNamara had resigned, or been fired, and he himself would admit uncertainty.

But McNamara's seven years at the Department of Defence was more than Vietnam. It was the transformation of defence procurement, the first steps to standardising the weapons and systems used by the different branches of the military - a process than continues today. It was the introduction of Directive 5120.36, which allowed the commanders of military installations to use their economic power to punish racial discrimination on the part of businesses in their surrounding communities. It was a change in emphasis, from massive unrestrained nuclear retaliation to the ability to fight conventional wars and defeat insurgencies.

And McNamara himself was more than just the Department of Defence. He ended the Second World War as a Lieutenant Colonel, having served as a bombing analyst under Curtis Le May (who would later serve as Air Force Chief of Staff under McNamara) in the Far East. At the age of 45, he became the President of the Ford Motor Company, the first from outside the Ford family - but held the post for just two months before joining Kennedy's cabinet. After leaving the Department of Defence, McNamara spent 13 years as President of the World Bank, shifting the Bankís focus from infrastructure projects to poverty reduction, backing projects to alleviate river blindness and increase literacy.

His 2003 film biography, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, mixes Errol Morris' trademark interview style with archive footage and a haunting Philip Glass score. The eleven lessons, drawn from McNamaraís life, and chosen by Morris, are:

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 re-examine 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

This idea of lesson from life echoes a different list offered in McNamara's 1995 memoir 'In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam'. His own final lesson was:

"We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions. At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world."

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, is showing at FACT on Tuesday 13 April, at 9.00pm.