The Fog of Conflict

Recently i watched a documentary called The Fog of War, which is essentially a feature-length interview with Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War. In it he shares eleven lessons he gleaned from his life, especially from his time in the White House. I was surprised—being a pacifist & all—how much i could relate to what he was saying, & how much i felt his lessons could be applied to any conflict one would have in life. What follows are the lessons discussed in The Fog of War, with some slight changes and a few of my own thoughts on the lessons.

1. Empathise with your enemy.

While i find the word enemy a bit extreme, preferring “the other” or a different & more innocuous term, i kept it in because, well, as much as pacifists hate to admit it, we often do have enemies. Not the abstract, love-your-enemies kind of enemies, but real human people with whom we cannot get along with or whom we dislike with a passion or vice versa.

That aside, i think that in any conflict it is so important to find or create a space in which we can empathise with those on the other side. If we do not do this, we’ll forever be falling into the trap of demonizing them. Once we believe that a person is doing things to us out of spite, it is very difficult to turn this belief around or question it. But we’ll get to that more later.

2. Rationality will not save us.

“It was luck that saved us… Rational individuals came this close [thumb & forefinger millimetres apart] to nuclear war… and that danger exists today.” McNamara was referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Long story short: they got two strange messages in a matter of minutes, one saying that if the US backed off, then the Russians would remove the missiles from Cuba, the other saying, basically, bring it on! The US decided to listen to the “soft” message, as he puts it, & nuclear war was averted.

But it came down to the wire.

McNamara’s point, i think, is that even though all the people involved in this Cold War conflict were rational, intelligent human beings, it came down to luck—receiving these messages & deciding which one to go with. I think what it also says about humans is that, especially in conflict situations, we are rarely guided by our rationality. Most likely we’ll be leaning heavily on our emotions, which are fickle creatures at best. I don’t believe that we can necessarily change that (again: more on that later), but we can certainly be aware of this & figure out ways to cope with this fact.

3. There’s something beyond oneself.

This one may be fairly self explanatory. Whether we call it God, Allah, the Common/Greater/Supreme Good, Values, or any number of other names, the idea that there’s something beyond us, guiding our actions is an important one. Humans are a selfish species (in my opinion), but ideals & values & beliefs about what’s beyond us temper that selfishness, spurring us on to greater acts of kindness toward others.

4. Maximize efficiency.

In the interview, McNamara talks about how they tried to maximize their military efforts during various incursions, including the bombing of Tokyo. He tries to duck blame, saying that though he had published a study that informed the commanding officer of inefficiencies in his mission he didn’t actually say to him that he should use firebombs.

What i take from this is that in conflict we can run around doing this & that, talking about who said what to whom on which day, et cetera et cetera. Most of the time these words & actions do little to solve the conflict, but often aggravate it further. If we take a step back, breathe deeply, & let things lie for a bit, we can perhaps gain some perspective on what course of action would be appropriate in the given situation.

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in [conflict].

Here McNamara ponders whether it is morally right—wise even—to firebomb an entire city filled with civilians in order to win a war. “Killing 50-90% of the people in sixty-seven Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve… The human race prior to that time—and today—has not grappled with the… rules of war. Was there a rule that said you shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in a night?” He goes on to ponder the words of one general who said that if they’d have lost the war with Japan, they’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. “But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

This relates back to the previous lesson. If we continue to try to get even with others, we’ll never just be content to get even. It’s the old who’s-got-the-bigger-gun dilemma. If we’re not careful with what we say or do, we run the risk of turning small problems into bigger ones.

6. Get the data.

I’m going to forego the background from the movie here & simply give my two cents: If we’re content to subsist on rumours in a conflict situation, we must also be content with the fact that we’ll never fully understand what’s going on. It takes some uncomfortable situations to get the data, i.e. the other person’s/people’s perspectives. If we’re willing to go through a little discomfort, we’ll often move further toward understanding & empathising with our enemy (see lesson 1).

7. Belief & seeing are both often wrong.

Ooo, a difficult one to admit. But very true if we’re willing to look honestly at our perceptions. I’m reading a book which talks about, among other things, how we justify false beliefs even in the face of disconfirming evidence. We’ll often twist what we see to fit what we already believe. If i believe, for example, that someone is murdering people in their basement & you take me to said basement to show me the glaring lack of evidence, i might respond with, “This just shows how good So-&-so is at covering up tracks.”

Hmm. I think this is another case of we-can’t-change-it-but-we-can-be-mindful-of-it. I think that we are such interesting beings, we humans, but we are sometimes interesting in frustrating ways. But if we at least recognise our interestingly frustrating natures, we can be better prepared with humility & willingness to engage with each other.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

This one builds on the last. If we never admit we’re wrong, we’ll never get anywhere. Of course it doesn’t help to always admit you’re wrong either. A fine balance, indeed.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

I’ve struggled with this one. What i eventually came up with, is that our actions are almost never either wholly positive or wholly negative. If i help someone to buy a house or get a job, that might be preventing another person from getting that house or job, sending them into a negative spiral. Maybe that’s extreme, but i think it’s true to some extent. We need to examine the possible outcomes, weigh the pros & cons, and recognise that there won’t be one perfect right answer.

10. Never say never.

Be open to all possibilities. Enough said.

11. You can’t change human nature.

I kept alluding to this last lesson. I think it’s very true. We can learn a lot about human nature, but there’s very little we can change about it. But we can be mindful & we can learn ways to cope with our tendencies toward selfishness & conflict.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Mr McNamara: “I think the human race needs to think more about killing, about conflict. Is that what we want in this twenty-first century?” I find this quote to be all the more powerful coming from someone who faced killing & conflict head on; struggled with these demons of humanity down in the depths of his soul.

I’m not so full of self-importance as to think that of course people will find this rambling post interesting. But i hope some of you do find it interesting. & i hope you add your own thoughts to the mix.

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2 comments on “The Fog of Conflict

  1. Kelly says:

    Thera, Elizabeth, and I found it interesting! …and it sparked a conversation about war documentaries and PTSD and processing. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Cheryl says:

    I also found your post interesting! A lot of what you said resonates with what I’ve been studying. We just finished a three-day conference on campus talking about “attachment theory” and how human brains are wired for building relationships and expanding the sense of self, but tend to highlight the “us vs. them” when feeling threatened or in conflict. Thanks for this!

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