The difficulty of morality in relation to war

Shaheed Shihan Columnist


 The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is an award-winning documentary, perhaps partly skewed only because of its peripheral look at controversial issues in the past through the eyes of Errol Morris, the filmmaker. Even then I believe that there are multiple learning points that can be applied today to the wars being waged and prevent ones that might be waged in the future. McNamara who was a member of the Harvard faculty reiterates my point in the film by saying: “Try to learn. Try to understand. Develop the lessons and pass them along.”

War is the most complex form of Game Theory, the study of decision-making. In this global economy, there are far more players and consequences than that which we can wrap our heads around. One of McNamara’s most powerful lessons is to deal with the danger of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, all relevant decision-makers were rational in their approach yet they were a whisper away from engaging in conflict. In recent history, we can see that the Prisoner’s Dilemma game being played between North Korea and the U.S., which prompts the thinking that if an almost self-sufficient economy can build weapons of mass destruction, how far ahead are the rest of the world in the arms race? 

Cognitive rules can only play a very limited role in foreign policy decision-making and international relations. The “domino theory” which was in the minds of the decision-makers in Washington was clearly miscalculated because they failed to empathize the enemy. The importance of empathy, which was clearly the deciding factor in avoiding the Nuclear War, was ignored during the days of Vietnam and turned out to be a leading cause for failure. This mistake has been repeated during the Iraq War again, when the U.S. applied its faulty unilateral approach to engagement in both Afghanistan then Iraq. They are still paying the price for it. 

The actions of individual decision-makers often deviate from rationality because their decisions are influenced by their characteristics, morals and other psychological factors. Lesson number seven in the documentary “Seeing and believing are both wrong” echoes the point that we see what we want to believe. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is a primary outcome of this. Individual misperception and the group psychology that “We all agree so we must be right,” are direct consequences of such actions and can result in over confidence. The fact that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq had no exit-strategy proves this point that America believed that both wars could be won with sheer number. The result was fatal. 

Foreign policy decisions might be based on a variety of factors, but on almost every level of analysis, they revolve around selfishness. Everyone wants what is best for them. The price that they are willing to pay to achieve those goals are the consequences. Human beings often chase the short-term lucrative goals without thinking about the bigger picture; for example the generational effect of an atomic bomb or social consequences of war in the Middle East or the fear effect of blowing up the twin towers. 

In war, there are no laws that condemn the killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children be that through bombs or weapons, either physical, biological or chemical. There is no justification to morality if you win or lose. Killing is an act of evil, a tarnish on the soul. Human nature is synonymous to the laws of gravity: push and pull. As observed in the movie, Lord of the Flies, the human nature, stripped of all the laws of society, can be both savage and peaceful. I solely agree with McNamara’s judgment that one can’t change human nature but I hope in the days to come, foreign policy decision makers will integrate a self-reflective sense of responsibility for those who will emerge as the not so well off. 

Shaheed Shihan is a senior majoring in mathematics. He can be emailed at [email protected].