The Colossal Failure of Choice is the True Risk
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” ― Henry Ford
The novel coronavirus has conjured up terms like battle, war, and images of an invisible enemy, and like war, the global pandemic has created a fog. The fog of war is a military term that describes the difficulty of making decisions in the midst of conflict. As the novel coronavirus began to unfold in January and eventually declared a pandemic it quickly became clear that the adversary, the coronavirus, had the upper hand but less clear what the global response would be.
The scope and epic impacts of the pandemic in lost lives and economic collapse guarantees that this event will be debated and analyzed for years to come. There are no winners in this event and laying blame will only ensure that the most valuable lessons may be lost in silence, or noise depending on one’s point of view. But it does beg the question, what are the causes of failure of choice?
President John F. Kennedy appointed Robert McNamara Secretary of Defense to prosecute the Vietnam War from 1961–1968. Mr. McNamara’s training in systems analysis, economics and business administration led to early success in business which eventually lead to an appointment to Kennedy’s cabinet. McNamara’s systems approach was described as follows, “First, the word ‘systems’ indicates that every decision should be considered in as broad a context as necessary. . . The word ‘analysis’ emphasizes the need to reduce a complex problem to its component parts for better understanding. Systems analysis takes a complex problem and sorts out the tangle of significant factors so that each can be studied by the method most appropriate to it.”
Robert McNamara’s systems approach was credited with aiding the military in planning and decision making on weapons development and many other budget issues; however, [his] tendency to pay less attention to military advisers closer to the issues and more on “impersonal quantitative analysis” led to unpopularity with service leaders and members of Congress. Upon his resignation in 1968, Secretary McNamara paused to reflect on his failure in two historic military events: The Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War. Interestingly, McNamara recalled the Bay of Pigs’ operation as his primary regret because [it],“could have been recognized as an error at the time.” I will return to this point later to discuss how institutional group think and a lack of collaborative dissent leads to failure.
In the 2003 documentary film, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, the director of the film, Errol Morris outlines the lessons from interviews with McNamara. One year after the release of the documentary at a joint appearance at U.C. Berkeley, McNamara offered a revised version of Morris’ interpretation with ten additional lessons. I will attempt to summarize Morris’ eleven lessons and McNamara’s ten separately. I offer these lessons for reflection on similar themes being played out today in real time as we attempt to see through the fog of the Covid-19 war being fought.
Errol Morris’ version:
- Understand your adversary to learn how to respond
- Rationality is not enough
3. Look beyond one’s self
4. Efficiency matters
5. Apply proportionality appropriately to the problem
6. Get the data
7. What you see and believe is not all there is to the problem or solution
8. Be prepared to adjust as the circumstances change
9. Never say never
10. You can’t change human nature
Robert McNamara’s revised version:
- War cannot be won on principles (“just wars or proportionality”) alone
2. Beware the combination of human fallibility and the prosecution of power
3. Moral principles are imprecise guides to decision making
4. The USA is powerful but we are not omniscient — we must lead by persuasion
5. We, the richest nation on earth, has failed our own poor to help them advance their own welfare
6. Corporate executives have a responsibility to society as a whole not only shareholders
7. President Kennedy believed his primary responsibility was to avoid war but prepare
8. War is a blunt instrument. Disputes must be settled responsibly.
9. We must deal with our adversaries with empathy — understand what others feel & need
10. Our actions must not contribute to the breakdown of productive dialogue
These lessons are as powerful today as they were upon reflection by McNamara from the mistakes and failures of the Vietnam war. The call to action today is — what choices are we making now that will lead to success or failure? Secretary McNamara regretted not speaking up during the planning of the Bay of Pigs invasion because as he states [it],“could have been recognized as an error at the time.”
Are we missing that moment now?