Director: Errol Morris
Cinematographer: Robert Chappell
by Jon Cvack
I first saw this film when it first came out, watching it with a buddy of mine who was far more into politics than I was at the time. He loved it and I thought it was just okay. I remember we played pool afterwards and I struggled to defend what my problem was. I figured it might have been my ignorance, as at the time I wasn’t all that interested in politics or the war. With now a near-unhealthy addiction to politics, I figured I would take on a new appreciation of this movie, though again, I found it lacking something; the same something that was missing the first time.
The film is divided into eleven of Robert McNamara’s life lessons, who served as Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. For each section, he recounts what led him to that conclusion. They include:
McNamara went to UC Berkeley where he studied mathematics and philosophy, then going on to Harvard to get his MBA. After a year of working at Price Waterhouse, he returned to Harvard to teach making somewhere along the lines of $4000 a year. A few years later he enlisted in the Air Force where he worked in intelligence, providing statistical analysis for bombing runs in order to increase success and efficiency, both in completing missions and in the technologies and methods of air transport.
Recently I watched a ‘Faster Horse’ which highlighted how important McNamara’s role was in saving Ford Motor Company when Henry Ford II nearly drove the company into the ground. McNamara took his team from the Air Force and brought them to the ailing company, soon becoming the famous “Whiz Kids” who examined the data in order to - again - drive up speed, success, and efficiency. McNamara worked his way up the company, becoming a millionaire, and charging up such projects as the Ford Falcon and increased safety features, such as the seatbelt, which allowed them to significantly cut down on driving injuries and fatalities (and therefore legal costs). Eventually, McNamara became the first President of the Ford Motor Company outside of the Ford Family.
The documentary doesn’t really analyze the reasoning as to why JFK wanted McNamara to become his Secretary of Defense. Wikipedia mentions that the job was originally offered to Robert A. Lovett who was Secretary of Defense under Harry Truman. Still, it doesn’t mention the reasoning or logic and I’m failing to understand. I even posted the question on Quora, but have yet to receive a response (the initial draft of this post was written over a year ago).
Regardless of the reasoning, McNamara ushered in a new of era or statistical and data driven analysis in order to come up with sophisticated formulas that would minimize casualties and increase destruction, in order to carry out what he referred to as a ‘proportionality’ that would limit the amount of excessive force used that could kill innocent civilians or damage the environment. As he discusses these issues Morris rolls math formulas over the newsreel footage of the extravagant and incredible use of weaponry during the battles. McNamara is under no pretense that the fighting between humans was going to end any time soon, and therefore worked to ensure that the United States fought as justly as possible, meaning that civilian and military casualties unfortunately had to function as nothing more than statistics, which isn’t necessarily wrong, though grossly disconnected, yet better than not regarding them at all, as Nixon would later be accused of during his Cambodian bombing campaign.
Having watched this only a few weeks after HBO’s Path to War, it was fascinating to get insight into the individual that was pushing LBJ to undergo additional aggression as it looked to end up in their favor. Throughout the documentary Robert McNamara seems to have good, but not great insight, as though his entire world view was limited by analysis and assessment. Nothing he says is particularly profound so much as pragmatic. He wasn’t a bad man, but he wasn’t perfect either. For anyone who believes that complete pacifism is an answer, I’d urge you to watch this film, which shows a little bit of what you don’t know, including the three times that McNamara says we came within a hair of nuclear catastrophe with the Soviet Union. Still, I’m not sure what was missing. I suspect it was the complete detachment McNamara had regarding his insights and the gross destruction of life had a role in playing. There didn’t seem to be much regret or concern for the casualties that were victims of the lowest common denominator. It’s interesting, it’s just not fascinating.
BELOW: #11: You can't change human nature. We all make mistakes
Thoughts on films, old and new
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