As Intro to Political Theory moves forward with course material, I continually am reminded of the clip we watched from The Fog of War. This documentary about the life and lessons of Robert McNamara , Secretary of Defense during the presidencies of JFK and LBJ, depicts a modern day manifestation of Machiavelli’s “dirty hands theory.” As Machiavelli anticipated in The Prince, politicians like McNamara must often resort to questionable means in order to achieve a greater good. However, while his employment of this theory isn’t necessarily unjust, his disregard for empathy causes McNamara to eventually condemn his own actions as immoral. In this post, I would like to examine the institution of war in the context of McNamara’s decisions and ideas of morality presented in class thus far.
In the film, which I had the opportunity to watch in full during a high school seminar, McNamara presents 11 lessons he has learned throughout life. In his 6th lesson, McNamara says “Get the Data.” While the film cuts to McNamara in an old White House recording, the screen pictures tallies, numbers and counts of the nation’s human resources. As the pictures and numbers roll past, a younger McNamara can be heard in the background speaking of army men in the same terms as artillery or supplies, as nothing more than numbers. While he accurately accounted for numerical data, McNamara had no way to tally the true value of human life. In sending tens of thousands of men to Vietnam for what was later deemed “a pointless war” it is clear McNamara pushed empathy aside in his decision-making. Machiavelli would argue McNamara acted as an ideal politician should. But, as I watched the obviously remorseful man on screen, did he act as an ideal human should?
A major controversy surrounding McNamara’s political career was the use of firebombs on cities. The United States army authorized the burning of entire cities, including their innocent inhabitants, based on deductions of their numerical reasoning. As Hobbes states, in his book Leviathan, “Nature has made man essentially equal in faculties of the body and mind.” If we
assume all men to be equal, as I reason McNamara did, where is the justice in trading one innocent life in America for another innocent life in Tokyo? McNamara admits, in a pivotal moment in the film, “LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” By adhering to another Machiavellian tenant, thinking of war in every aspect of life, McNamara lost the humanizing element of empathy. His dirty hands approach operated under another theory discussed in class, “might is right.” As proven by McNamara’s unrest and regret, even years after making these decisions, humanity and empathy must not escape us, even in the most heartless of times.