Tonight, I finally watched "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" (2003) by film maker Errol Morris. It won an academy award for Best Documentary.
"The Fog of War" is a disturbing movie, but well worth a viewing. Essentially, Morris just lets 85-year old McNamara talk to the camera, while he shows relevant archival footage.
If you don't know McNamara's background, you will after the film. He was a Harvard professor, an executive at Ford Motor Company (the first leader not from the Ford family), Secretary of Defense from 1961-1967, and then President of the World Bank until 1981.
The Vietnam discussions are unsettling of course, but for me the most troubling parts of the interview addressed McNamara's time in World War II.
McNamara explains how the U.S. bombed and burned something like 65 Japanese cities before the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over half the civilian populations of those cities. In Tokyo, the best known firebombing, an estimated 100,000 people were killed in one night as the city burned.
As it happens, I spent the day working on a paper about the Bush doctrine, which addresses threats from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists or rogue states.
The World War II memories put current concerns in a different context. Conventional bombings can be quite devastating in their own right -- and war is a very blunt instrument for pursuing national security goals.
I've seen McNamara speak twice, once in 1987 or 1988 at Stanford, when he primarily talked about missile defense (if I recall correctly) and once a couple of years ago (post 9/11) when he discussed militarization, war and disarmament. Later that night, I had dinner with him and a few other faculty and students.
Maybe I'll blog more about that night some other time.
Meanwhile, see "The Fog of War."