We and you ought not to pull on the ends of a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you.
– Nikita Khrushchev’s message to John F Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as interpreted by Robert McNamara in ‘The Fog of War’
India and Pakistan sharply tugged on their ends of the rope this last week. And at the time of writing, they still have their hands on it. John F. Kennedy, the US President, knew what cutting the knot meant; what Khrushchev was alluding to. Most ordinary citizens of these countries at the brink of war don’t. And they need to. If only because the war is purportedly fought in their name and the consequences are also for them to bear.
Robert McNamara in this spellbinding 2003 documentary – The Fog of War – shares his hard-earned insights into the nature of modern warfare. He knew what he was talking about. He contributed to the US war effort in World War II. Under his watch as Secretary of Defence, the United States came closest to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis in the early 60s and then got caught up in the quagmire of the Vietnam war towards the end of the decade. His observations – offered as life-lessons – transcend the American context and apply universally. We will explore a few lessons in this article.
McNamara’s opening statement provides a chilling context of understanding for the recent India-Pakistan skirmish.
Even One Mistake is One Too Many
“Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. There will be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.”
The escalatory spiral for India and Pakistan has to contend with no learning period and the unacceptability of even one mistake as they both possess nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons bind combatants together in a deathly embrace – that is the knot – that binds them together. If any side seeks to break away by exerting coercive force, the other side is bound by the logic of nuclear deterrence ( we both have enough nuclear weapons to absorb your attack and retaliate so that we both will be destroyed) to reciprocate. The knot gets tightened. Unbearable tension is created. And the knot can become so tight, the tension so unbearable, that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons destroys both enemy nations. Simply put, there are no survivors in nuclear war, let alone, winners.
To steer clear of this precipice, Robert McNamara offers his first life-lesson.
Empathize with the Enemy
The Soviets had misjudged the severity of American response to stockpiling nuclear weapons in Cuba. The Americans were right to term this as an existential threat and were inclined to strike Cuba. But, the Americans empathised with the Soviets. Because they did so, they realised that Nikita Khrushchev is thinking – how can we resolve this without appearing to back down. If Americans offered to not invade Cuba in return for getting the missiles removed, Khrushchev can then say, ‘I saved Cuba. I stopped an invasion’.
This, McNamara says is empathy.
“We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.”
The military establishments of both India and Pakistan were doing just that and trying to reconcile this empathic understanding with the choice of military action that would further their national interest. This is a very tough balancing act especially since a battle of perception is also being fought alongside. If the ordinary people of both countries decide to empathise with the perceived enemy, they will have a far better grasp of what is going on.
Robert McNamara’s second lesson is a disturbing one, coming from someone who actually was involved in a Nuclear Doomsday scenario during the Cuban Missile crisis.
Rationality will not save us
30 years after the Cold War, McNamara got a chance to meet Fidel Castro of Cuba. They got a chance to interrogate each other about what was actually going in the minds of the each side during the Missile crisis.
“It wasn’t until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, “Mr. President, let’s stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I’m not sure I got the translation right.”
“Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: Did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: If you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: If he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?”
He said, “Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, ‘What would have happened to Cuba?’ It would have been totally destroyed.That’s how close we were”
As the leader of the nation who knew his country will be destroyed by the choice he would make, Fidel Castro in full awareness of that total extinction would have chosen to precipitate a nuclear exchange! The power to make such a choice has such unthinkable consequences that it begs the question whether any single leader or a group of leaders of any nation can be trusted with the power on the basis of rationality.
Even as India and Pakistan traded military blows, every analytical discussion of how each side was sizing up the response of the other was based on the assumption of rationality – they make sense on the basis of reason. It is thought that there is a method to the madness. What McNamara is saying is that this rationality is a delusion we carry in our heads to comfort ourselves that we have got this thing under our control. Nobody is in total control.
All other life-lessons offer gems of wisdom distilled from the real-life experience of a practitioner of war whose voice cannot be dismissed by anybody worth their salt. This documentary is surely an indispensable resource for armed forces establishments and military decision-making circles around the world.
I leave you with the last life-lesson in Robert McNamara’s words.
You can’t change human nature.
“We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase – The fog of war.
What ‘The fog of war’ means is: War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate.
And we kill people unnecessarily. Woodrow Wilson said (of the First World War) – We won the war to end all wars. I’m not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We’re not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn’t that we aren’t rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.
There’s a quote from T.S. Eliot that I just love:
We shall not cease from exploring
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Now that’s in a sense where I’m beginning to be.
P.S. – Watch the documentary. Can be a very sobering influence. If you can’t, here is the link to the transcript.