I saw The Fog of War on Saturday night. I strongly recommend that you see it. It was an intensely thought-provoking documentary, made especially powerful by the fact that the history was real. Real people made these decisions. Real cities were destroyed. Real people died — burned to death, shot, or vaporized — by the hundreds of thousands. And millions more could have been killed, as McNamara makes clear. He realized the world was close to nuclear war in October 1962, with the limited information available. But the true situation was even more dangerous than he knew then — nuclear warheads had actually been in Cuba at the time, aimed at the United States, and they would surely have been launched had the U. S. attempted an invasion of Cuba.
How can we be certain never to arrive at that situation again? The course of history that we are currently navigating does not bode well. Once again, a unilateral war. Once again, a oxymoronic "preventive war". A secret nuclear policy, with gathering indications toward escalation and development of new weapons. Continued aggression and deceptive posturing, even while 15000 kg of weapons-grade nuclear material (enough for a thousand nuclear bombs) distributed by the U. S. remains at large around the world. But this time, there is no single enemy. The enemy is a shadow; everywhere and nowhere; with no name and no face. The enemy is no single person; it is a concept in the minds of our assailants that cannot be vanquished by destroying anything or killing anyone.
A wise person once wrote:
The only thing you can learn from history is that people don't learn anything from history.
I would end here if i were trying to be poignant. But that's the easy way out. We can't afford to continue repeating the same mistakes.
One thing the movie reminded me is that everyone believes they are doing the right thing. The kind of conviction that is required to kill thousands of people can only come from an externally rooted belief. You may disagree with me, but i am convinced these people were not insane — they had logical reasons to believe that their actions were for the greater good. This was McNamara's lesson #2: "Rationality will not save us."
I see two reasons that rationality is insufficient.
The first reason is that all sides are dealing with incomplete information, and have neither the trust nor the means to combine that information and cooperate on a solution. The League of Nations was an attempt to provide that means, and today the United Nations plays that critical role. The United Nations must be maintained and made more effective. But that is not enough.
Conclusion 1. Multilateral bodies for co-operative decision making, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, must be maintained and strengthened.
Even within countries, the information is not complete. Leaders hide crucial information from their own citizens; nuclear policies and reasons for war remain behind closed doors, never debated in public. And information within the administration itself is inconsistent and incomplete. According to McNamara, even Curtis LeMay, who directed the firebombings that burned over a million Japanese people to death, said that atomic bombing was unnecessary before the bomb was dropped. But Truman probably didn't know that 63 cities had already been burned to the ground by the firebombings. When Truman gave the order, he believed that Hiroshima was a military base, not a city. The bomb was dropped under LeMay's command — but LeMay was never asked for his opinion. He followed his orders.
Conclusion 2. The rationale for any military policy decision must be debated (publicly if possible) in front of a panel of peer-approved experts in fields relevant to the decision, and their feedback taken into account.
Conclusion 3. The administration must improve its capacity for internal communication and collaborative decision-making.
The second reason is that the impact of such decisions is so far-reaching. McNamara used the words "the fog of war" to refer to the impossibility of decision-making in war because of overwhelming complexity. Even when complete information is available, there are often so many variables that no human mind can comprehend the repercussions of the decision. We can fight that by reducing complexity or by managing complexity.
Where does the complexity come from? We all make decisions every day that also have cascading effects. The difference between these decisions and military decisions is their intended magnitude. War is about exercising power; thus, a major subgoal of the military is to magnify power as much as possible (usually by developing ever more destructive weapons). But, paradoxically, greater force leads to more complicated and less predictable results. The very thing done to exert greater control in fact leads to less control. The escalation must stop. We don't need W.O.P.R. to tell us the solution: The only way to win is not to play.
Conclusion 4. The nations of the world (and the United States especially, as the current superpower) must negotiate to eliminate nuclear weapons and generally to disarm, to reduce the effects of mistakes in decision-making.
Finally we come to the problem of the fog of war itself. There is no ultimate escape from complexity; in the end we must manage and cope with the complexity we face. Information design and information visualization play important roles in achieving this goal, parts of which may or may not involve computers.
Conclusion 5. We must develop the means to organize the information relevant to a complex decision and present it to decision-makers in a form that facilitates fact-based analysis of all the consequences of the decision.
Those are my suggestions.
What would you propose? Go ahead, tell me what you think.
Robert McNamara was recently here in Berkeley, in an open discussion with Errol Morris. Alas, i missed the forum, as well as the one with George Soros, but video recordings are available online. A few of us are organizing a little group viewing of both the McNamara forum and the Soros forum at Kingman this Sunday around 8:30 pm. Want to join us?