• Jennifer Barnick

A Must-See Movie: The Fog of War

Vietnam War

Photo Source: Talk & Purpose

Everybody has hobbies. My hobby as of late has been a headlong obsession with the Whiz Kids. The Whiz Kids were a group of ten U.S. Army Air Force officers that formed the management science operation known as Statistical Control. Statistical Control was organized to coordinate all the operational and logistical information required to manage the waging of war. After World War II, the commanding officer of Statistical Control, Charles B. Thornton, called all around, looking to see if he could sell his ten mathematical geniuses to a company with the caveat that it was all ten men or nothing. Henry Ford II was struggling with his inherited company. At the time, Ford Motor Company was run by wildly underqualified men and was struggling to break even. Henry Ford II hired the ten Whiz Kids, and the world was irreversibly changed. Never before had a corporation based its policies on everything from hiring to product development on quantitative analysis. It seems incredulous that there ever was a time that corporate decisions were not based on numbers (nearly exclusively) and quantitative analysis (versus qualitative—which is tricky and messy to deal with), especially since all MBA programs today teach corporate management through quantitative analysis. The second in command of the group was Robert S. McNamara, and while he was extremely successful at Ford Motor Company—eventually becoming president of the company—Robert S. McNamara was tapped by John F. Kennedy to be the Secretary of Defense. McNamara served as Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson (1961-1968).

The Whiz Kids and their quantitative revolution were not without its massive failings. They put far too much faith in quantitative analysis while intentionally ignoring everything else. For them, it was a necessary discipline to focus solely on the numbers. The Whiz Kids pushed management by numbers too far which eventually led to poor paint quality, cars breaking down, and total lack of innovation. The Whiz Kid’s lack of understanding of the importance of quality (instead of just looking at cost-cutting) led to all of the American Big Three’s loss of market share to Japan (who had either hired a member of the Whiz Kids or began to emulate their quantitative management style).

Number crunching without seeking to understand qualitative analysis might have led to crummy cars and a Japanese car market triumph, but there was a far more tragic lesson to be learned from the perils of over-emphasizing quantitative analysis, and nowhere was that more illustrated than in the run-up and eventual execution of the Vietnam War. In many ways, it could be said that Robert S. McNamara was the Whiz Kid of the Whiz Kids. He was one of the early architects of the Statistical Control operation within the Army Air Force. He was a professor at Harvard at the time and looking for a way to get more students (as many of the men were either being drafted or had volunteered for WWII), so he and Harvard thought to start an officer training program. Consequently, him serving as the Secretary of Defense really was having the Whiz Kids running things.

The crux of the problem with the Whiz Kids was that they believed (incorrectly) that one could pin down quality just by using numbers. While there were many things that contributed to the ultimate tragedy and loss of the Vietnam War, one example of McNamara’s number blindness was his focus on kill ratios. His kill ratio that would lead to winning the war was one U.S. or Vietnamese killed for every 2.6 Viet Cong or non-Vietnamese dead. The truth was that we were always losing the war; however, the war could continue to be sold to Congress and America because according to McNamara’s kill ratio, we were winning a lot of the time. The problem was that later it was revealed that troops were instructed to over-inflate the kill numbers of the Viet Cong and to count three or four for every corpse. McNamara was easy to fool because his belief that numbers never lie was so strong. Consequently, while the numbers were saying things were pretty good in Vietnam, every single person who actually went there knew immediately that things were dire and that there was no possible way the U.S. could win. The most profound problem with killing by numbers is it leaves killing as the sole means of winning a war and rarely are wars solely won through attrition.

The full title of the movie I am heartily recommending is The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. It is based on Robert S. McNamara’s memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The movie is a long interview, shot close-up, of an eighty-five-year-old McNamara. I imagine everyone will have a different feeling regarding McNamara as they watch it, as some of the territory the movie touches on is brutal. I would imagine if you were a Vietnam vet or old enough to remember Vietnam and that tumultuous time in America then you will have, perhaps, a less than sympathetic feeling towards him as he painfully walks you through his life of war, service, and decision making. It was the life of decision making that struck me the most. It can be very easy to judge the men and women in charge harshly; however, it becomes very clear that very few people ever have to make the soul-sacrificing decisions men such as McNamara did. I say ‘soul-sacrificing,’ as it is clear he and the men before him, like General Curtis LeMay, seriously understood they might have genuinely lost their souls. McNamara served under LeMay in WWII and would again meet up with him during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a very haunting sequence of the film where McNamara walks us through his participation in the final parts of the Japanese American War, McNamara quotes LeMay as saying to McNamara after the defeat of Japan that, “If we had lost the war, we would have been prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara acknowledges that but also acknowledges the discipline of Gen. LeMay knowing his job: to win the war. The ninth lesson (the movie is organized by a series of eleven lessons McNamara has learned) was, “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.”

This is a must-see movie. It is challenging; however, I also feel that one walks away better and wiser for having seen it. Not a lot of movies can offer that. The movie was originally released in 2003. It was directed by Errol Morris, and Philip Glass composed an original score for the film. It won the Academy Award for best documentary feature as well as the Independent Spirit Award for best documentary feature.

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.