The Fog of War

Robert McNamara & ‘The Fog of War'

 

Viewers aren’t likely to have forgotten Errol Morris’s ominous and dreamlike 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, which took up the case of a Texas drifter wrongly convicted of killing a cop in a nighttime roadside shooting. Morris reconstructed different versions of the killing, fashioning a Rashomon-like inquiry into innocence and guilt. Set to a hauntingly anxious Philip Glass score, the film was both stylized and serious-a hyperreal nightmare that assembled a point-by-point indictment of a corrupt Texas legal system. Morris’s newest effort, The Fog of War, provides a similarly engrossing study in culpability. The film surveys the life and times of Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara oversaw the conduct of the Vietnam War until his abrupt firing in 1967, and his life since has followed what looks like a path of contrition-advocating for third-world development as longtime president of the World Bank, and, in the mid-1990s, issuing a memoir, In Retrospect, that seemed to apologize for the disaster of Vietnam. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” McNamara wrote. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.” Morris read the book and persuaded its author to talk on camera. The result is a series of interviews combined with footage of the calamitous historical moment in which McNamara rose to power. Morris is interested in brilliant minds, their capacity for inspired creation on the one hand and dark fixation on the other: an earlier film of his (Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control) profiled four eccentric enthusiasts, including a topiary gardener and a robot-builder, while another (Mr. Death) profiled Fred Leuchter, the execution systems engineer who earned notoriety for attempting to disprove the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. The Fog of War continues this study of intelligence gone awry. As for McNamara himself, at eighty-five, the man has his own agenda. “I’m at an age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions,” he says. His goal, he tells Morris, is to “try to understand what happened.” He’s certainly smart enough. The Fog of War charts McNamara’s lifelong precociousness: whiz kid at Berkeley, young-est professor ever at Harvard Business School, and president of Ford Motor Company at forty-three-for just five weeks, it turned out, after which Kennedy named him to his cabinet. Perhaps more than any other figure, McNamara exemplified the ascendancy of “the best and the brightest,” the meritocratic, intelligence-testing managerial elite that JFK brought to Washington. His forte, in business and in the military, was statistical analysis, and montages of newspaper articles from the early 1960s allude to his famously “brainy” personality and “computer-like mind.” His smooth corporate style contrasted dramatically with the gruff belligerence of top Pentagon brass, such as General Curtis LeMay, a cigar-chomping warrior who headed the Air Force during World War II when McNamara was an officer working as a statistical analyst. McNamara consulted with LeMay on the strategy of mass firebombing in Japan. Looking back, he expresses awe at the devastation: up to 90 percent of the residents of two dozen major cities killed, including more than one hundred thousand in Tokyo alone-“men, women, and children,” he emphasizes. As we survey the charred ruins of Tokyo, Morris, off screen, asks whether McNamara considers himself implicated in the carnage. “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it,” he answers. He goes on to describe a conversation after the war in which LeMay reflected that if America had lost, he, McNamara, and others would have been prosecuted as war criminals. “And I think he was right,” comments McNamara. A searing confession? Not quite. Every time the discussion leads McNamara to the brink, he backs off, scooting down an escape hatch into rhetorical argument, turning personal confession into academic speculation. “Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death one hundred thousand civilians in one night?” he asks. “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” Again and again McNamara leads with an apology, then follows with an excuse-what Vietnam War journalist Sydney Schanberg has mordantly called his “ambidextrous explanations.” The result is a subtle, disconcerting study of moral and intellectual powers in conflict within one man. Repeatedly Morris catches McNamara unhooking himself from his own actions, disabling his capacity to judge himself. Asked whether the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam constituted a crime against humanity, McNamara typically equivocates. “What is morally appropriate in a wartime environment?” he asks. “What kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not? We don’t have clear definitions.” Then: “I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange-I don’t remember it-but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was secretary.” For all his ostensible desire to tell the truth, when it comes to the hardest points, McNamara proves slippery. And, at times, outrageous. Recalling the horrific case of a Quaker protestor who immolated himself in front of the Defense Department in 1965, he has the audacity not only to sympathize, but to identify with him personally-both “sensitive human beings,” he observes, in a “very very difficult situation.” Captured by Morris’s camera, such arrant self-deception becomes a mesmerizing gall. Yet the film’s portrayal is by no means wholly unsympathetic. Like McNamara’s book, The Fog of War is divided into lessons-cautionary maxims concerning statecraft and the use of power that place him, in the context of today’s politics, well left of center. “We are the strongest nation in the world,” he says. “I don’t believe we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally.” He also warns repeatedly of the unique menace of nuclear weapons. McNamara is darkly fascinated by the tragedy of nuclear weapons, those products of human genius that threaten humanity with extinction. With a grim shudder he looks back to the Cuban missile crisis, when all that prevented nuclear war, he says, was luck. “Rationality will not save us,” he warns-with the quizzical surprise of someone who spent his life assuming it would. Morris’s specially equipped camera, the Interrotron, works by superimposing an image of the questioner-who’s actually in another room-over the lens, so that the interviewee converses directly, and unusually intimately, with us. We feel we’re seeing right into McNamara, through his too-eager, vaguely reptilian smile, and it’s a little bit creepy. Part of the creepiness lies in the clash between the lessons he says he has learned, and the personality of the man himself. It’s disturbing that despite all the ostensible chastening of his own intellectual hubris, McNamara still seems so highly self-regarding. At his advanced age, he still can’t avoid a smirk of satisfaction at recalling being named to Phi Beta Kappa in his sophomore year of college, or at being awarded-amid the unfolding debacle of Vietnam-the Medal of Freedom at the White House. “I’m very proud of my accomplishments,” he attempts to sum up, “and very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I made errors.” There’s something grotesque in McNamara’s speaking about himself the way a doting mother might about her son; he turns Vietnam into little more than a glitch in My Brilliant Career. Toward the end of the film, McNamara quotes the lyrical closing lines of T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” that invoke life’s long journey toward understanding, and chokes up with emotion. And yet when Morris asks, “Do you feel responsible for the war? Do you feel guilty?” he bounces right back into defensive mode, angrily refusing to answer. It’s as if the question has rudely interrupted a pleasant reverie over lost youth and innocence. This aura of self-indulgence may partly explain why McNamara’s not insubstantial effort of coming to terms has met with so much vehement denunciation over the past decade. Surely no other architect of the Vietnam War-be it McGeorge Bundy or Dean Rusk or William Westmoreland or Henry Kissinger-has come close to matching McNamara’s attempt to account, if not atone, for the wrong of Vietnam. Maybe McNamara is getting hammered on behalf of them all. Or maybe it’s his special gift for issuing halfhearted and self-serving mea culpas, an apologia disguised as an apology. In any case, we begrudge him his poetry and his pathos; or at least I did. Some have complained that Morris goes easy on McNamara, letting him get away with too many prevarications. “Morris is a brilliant filmmaker, but he is not a historian,” charges Eric Alterman in the Nation. Perhaps. My own sense is that there’s plenty to make one uneasy, not just about the history, but about the man himself-his combination of an exceptional intelligence with overweening pride, a mediocre conscience, and a rather limited imagination. “War is so complex,” McNamara informs us; “it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables.” The Fog of War gives us a scary look behind the lesson, back to the man before he knew it: the warmaking man who believed in the ability of the human mind-his own superior mind-to comprehend it all. 

Published in the 2004-02-13 issue: 
Tags

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

Also by this author
A Sisyphean Task

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Collections