Permissible Arms

“Belief and seeing are often both wrong.”

Posted in american media, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 May 2010

So, I went with “Permissible Arms.” You don’t have to change your links or anything if you don’t want to–it’ll all point back to the same place–but, you know. Title of the blog and all.

The week was a little hectic (and full of reading), and I never really sat down and wrote about “The Fog of War,” a 2003 documentary of a conversation and oral history with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Vietnam was my dad’s war, and there’s a fair amount of distance between his perception of it and mine. Any reputable academic will say that knowledge starts with what you don’t know, and there’s a lot about Vietnam I will probably never understand. That being said, it seems safe to say that McNamara was a controversial guy. The escalation of the Vietnam War probably couldn’t have happened to the degree that it did without his direct involvement.

“The Fog of War” relies both on McNamara’s recollection of events and archival material that both contrasts and supports his recollection. McNamara, at this point in his life, comes across mostly as a man who has somehow managed to live with the choices of his life and still maintain his humour; he seems like a grandfatherly man, one of those men who takes great delight in his descendants and what they end up doing. And yet he’s talking about one of the great American clashes of the 20th century.

McNamara’s focus on statistical analysis, data analysis, during World War II and subsequently in both his business endeavors with Ford and his work as the Secretary of Defense, seems pretty widely influential; but the filmmaker, Errol Morris, managed to make that objective analysis seem remarkably sinister. The contrast of bombing statistics in Japan with footage of Japan burning is one of the strongest indications of directorial license in the entire film.

The viewer is meant to walk away with eleven lessons McNamara grasped from his life, taken from the oral history Morris is conducting.

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

They seem like broadly acceptable lessons, but it seems to be that they truly have meaning within the context of McNamara’s account of his life, and Morris’ editing of that account. You walk away from the film without particularly thinking of McNamara as bad or good (at least, you do if you were born after the Vietnam War), rather as a man faced with hard choices, a man whose president died and was left with a lame duck successor right out of the gate. If Johnson was ever more convinced that more should be done in Vietnam, what could McNamara rightfully do to contradict him? Leave his position, I suppose, but I think it must have been hard to consider leaving a position that JFK requested you take.

It was, if not a film I would immediately recommend everyone see, certainly worth watching. Mostly, it means that I’ve added another dozen or so books about the Vietnam to my never-ending book queue.

Also, I watched “Good Morning Vietnam” shortly after “The Fog of War,” which is a weird mental pairing, let me tell you. “Good Morning Vietnam” was funnier than I recalled it being (I’m sure I understand a lot more of the humor now than I did when I first saw it) but it really contrasts the view from the ground versus the view from Washington.


2 Responses

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  1. Eric C said, on 6 June 2010 at 20:39

    I love the last paragraph, but they seem like spiritual cousins of films.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis on the contrasting statistics with flaming houses. This is misleading, just the way documentaries tend to be. If I wanted to kill myself, some day I’ll start a documentary project about how misleading they can be.

    Finally, to understand one point of view of Vietnam, read Dispatches by Herr. amazing.

    • Karaka said, on 7 June 2010 at 12:54

      Dispatches is on my Vietnam book list! There’s at least a dozen on there, which is really just introductory reading. You know, for that mythical future point when I will have hours and hours to educate myself on a new subject.

      Statistics always need to be understood in light of the margin of error in the process. And it seems that frequently the margin is ignored.

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