Saturday, February 04, 2006

Movie; The Fog of War

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The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

My impression is that "the fog of war" was also about about creating a better world, engaging the hearts, mind and the gut of decision makers whose decisions affects the life and death of nations. The US govt. during Kennedy’s and LBJ’s administration faces many of the choices the current govt. faces albeit in another context.
The first lesson from McNamara’s talk was he puts the work back to us to develop a heightened awareness of the dangers posed by modern weapons and asks us to think about how we can contribute to reduce these weapons for our children’s sake. He encouraged people to read the Kennedy tapes. I was struck by how dangerous concentration in power and authority can be when he spoke about ‘one human being has the potential to launch weapons and destroy world. Such concentrated authority coupled with "human fallibility’ came so close to destroying the world. Leadership should recognize their own fallibilities and put a system of checks and balances (in his example hotline, test bans, permissive locks) etc. These are technical solutions and important ones at that another technical solution that will make the world a safer place is to reduce the number of weapons to around 20.
Leadership must also distinguish between moral deeds and immoral deeds. He was against the brutal bombings against Japan and commented that those same actions will be construed as immoral if the USA had lost the war. While one can argue that ‘to the victors goes the spoils of history’ I too am in favor that leadership lies in developing widely endorsed and accepted international standards in war and the development of judicial deterrent. Since leasers and authority figures are only human it is important that there exists a system to keep them in check from themselves.
This was further highlighted where a resolution gave LBJ complete authority from congress to go to war in Vietnam. When an authority figure has unchecked authority even if he is wrong he is able to get away by carrying his sense of righteousness in his mind. Bob was right when he said we often see incorrectly and further more we see what we want to believe. In war, in perceiving the ‘work’ belief and seeing are often wrong. Adaptive work is more complex than technical work and is similar to military operations and therefore mistakes happen. It makes sense for a leader to take time to be sure her decisions are correct and often when they are not correct to have the good sense and humility to recognize that she may be wrong.
The importance of empath cannot be to over emphasized. Bob says that they were able to put themselves in skin of soviets during the missile crisis which helped save the world. They did not do so in Vietnam where the Vietnamese saw it as civil war and the US saw it as cold war. Both sides did not empathize and this led to a complete breakdown. Leadership should have been about being more sensitive to the culture, the history, and the aspirations of the Vietnamese people. Deploying empathy can help a leader diffuse tense situations and it is important for a leader to surround him with people capable of empathy as Ambassador Thomson was. It makes me wonder why we as a nation are less empathetic now than 20 yrs ago.
Repeatedly we see unilaterism. Indeed it is a tool of foreign policy now and it makes sense when one nation has global hegemony. In most leadership situations this is not the case for every authority figure has to work with a team of people. The lesson for a leader is not to apply power unilaterally but to "persuade others with comparable values about the merits of your cause. If you cannot do that then u should reexamine your reasoning."
The fact of the matter is that since human affairs are so complex we are not able to comprehend all the "variables". It would be an uphill and fruitless battle many a time to try to change "human nature". Cold logic and reason has its limits when interacting with people or when leading them.
Of course one needs to couple powerful analytic arguments with emotional appeal, appeal to constituency stakes to force deliberation when people brush important issues aside. This takes leadership and guts (Not synonymous all the time of course).
My take away was we make mistakes and we should, when we experiment with exercising leadership, identify those mistakes, take corrective action and pass on the learning to others.


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