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Lessons for a Political Fog of War

Oct 07, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The lessons from the documentary film Fog of War starring Robert McNamara offer wisdom for John Boehner, a man in the fog of political warfare.

First, McNamara tells the viewer that we need to empathize with our enemy. The enemy, as viewed from Boehner's eyes, is the Democrats, who see the government shutdown as political hostage-taking and are therefore refusing to negotiate. Or the enemy could be fellow Republicans, who are calling for a vote on a clean bill because they are for a functioning government. From Boehner's point of view, he has to oppose both groups because he cannot let Obamacare go into effect, since businesses do not like it and we are so damn broke as a country (never mind that funding for it is already in place, and that there is no public option). McNamara says that in order to do good, one may have to engage in evil. This is a lesson Boehner does not need to learn. Done and done, Democrats may say, although they would argue that no good is coming out of this. Boehner thinks that to save the country from Obamacare justifies a shutdown furloughing 800,000 people.

Thankfully, McNamara also asks us to be prepared to reexamine our reasoning. The Speaker may think that Obamacare may be a catastrophe for our country, but he may come to the conclusion, God-willing, that shutting down the government is not the way to oppose it. Poor Boehner may think that calling for a House vote on a clean CR bill will be political suicide for him. But he may underestimate the mercy of his flock, at least the ones that have a "hard head and a soft heart," as McNamara says in the movie. There are more of these understanding people than the extremists on the right. Never say never, tells McNamara. You may have thought that the Democrats would cave, that they would never allow the government to be shut for so long. You may have thought that Americans would blame Democrats for the shutdown. But people--Democrats, Republicans, and people of all political stripes--see that the Boehner and his party violated one of crucial take-aways for McNamara. Proportionality in war. It is not proportional to close the government down in return for the Congress passing a controversial law. The proportional route is to respect the congressional process as outlined in the Constitution and try to change the law in the way our founders intended. Let the law prove itself a total disaster and then change it as the political tide on both sides turns.

Boehner may have thought that people would respect his supposedly principled position of shutting down our government and blame the Democrats for passing Obamacare. But the facts say otherwise. An apropos lesson is that belief and seeing are both often wrong. That is why it is necessary to get the data. Recently, O'Reiley, told Ted Cruz that Americans are blaming the Republicans for the shutdown, but Ted Cruz would not concede to the facts. He simply could not believe it. He has convinced himself it cannot be true. John Boehner's former lawyer may be very persuasive, but (unfortunately for Boehner) Ted Cruz is not going to be there to advocate for John in front of his Maker.

McNamara tells us that rationality will not save us. For me, this is tied to another lesson, that we cannot change human nature. As Blaise Pascal once said, "the heart has its reasons that reason does not know." What the Republicans are doing is clearly not rational, but here we are, a full work week into the shutdown. And yet, just as there is a temptation to evil in human nature, so is there goodness and the possibility for mercy. There is something beyond one's self, reminds McNamara. Beyond one's political career. Beyond the circumstances of the time. We as a country are tearing ourselves apart in a way that our terrorist enemies could not even conceive. And so mercy and grace become paramount as a way out. John Boehner could simply have mercy on the American people. He could say, "the American people have suffered enough under the political warfare of our Congress. We must extend mercy to them and not leave them stranded." Speaker, do not let people be stranded at a time when we all feel a little vulnerable.

Toward the end of his life, McNamara said that the way he acted during the Vietnam War was "terribly wrong." From the sidelines, it is easy for us to say that what John Boehner is doing is questionable. But he is in a difficult position. As one Catholic to another, I offer Boehner my favorite verse. The most popular Bible in the US reminds us in Micah 6:8 (NIV) "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Have mercy, Speaker. Use the position God has put you in and speak out against what is going on, against throwing people under the bus for political ends, against one man's self-perceived moment of glory. John Boehner, the Lord asks us to have mercy so that He may have mercy on us.

And, more pressingly, have mercy so we have mercy on you.