"Jack Valenti? That crazy bastard
nailed more secretaries than Kennedy and Johnson put
together! And he could party like nobody's business.
Eleven Simple Rules for Changing
the Course of American History
When George W. Bush appeared on "Meet the Press"
a few weeks ago, Tim Russert asked the President about
his feelings regarding the Vietnam conflict. "I
supported the country but I was troubled", Bush
said. "There were politicians in the White House
making political decisions about military matters."
When I heard this, I began listing off the decision-makers
in the Bush '43 White House who had only seen war from
the side of politics and policy without seeing it on
the battlefied. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and
Rice. Powell is the first name before you find anyone
who isn't a "chicken hawk" operating in a
"wartime administration." This statement was
the most perplexing in this "embarrassing performance"
(Republican speech writer Peggy Noonan's words, not
mine). I could only shake my head: Is this the the low
point in American history, I thought. A President so
mired in his own spin that he couldn't even recognize
the reality of the situation. But history proves to
be the ultimate trump card as proven by Errol Morris'
absorbing new documentary The Fog of War. Morris
spends nearly two hours picking the psyche of Robert
S. McNamara, the man who played a pivotal role in the
strategy of World War II, the business boom of the 1950's
as an executive for the Ford Motor Company, and the
Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In each of the these individual capacities, McNamara
was indispensable in modeling attacks on the Pacific
Theatre, designing the modern automobile, and orchestrating
policy to stop the spread of Communism via police action
in Vietnam. While ambitiously brilliant in the abstract,
the work McNamara helmed also resulted in disastrous
results. From the lasting scars of the US failure in
Vietnam to the less destructive effects of the Ford
Edsel, he was instrumental on every level. Most documentary
filmmakers would be content on focusing this amazing
string of history with this complicated figure in the
middle of the storm. But Morris , not being the atypical
documentary filmmaker, tackles these events as though
they swirl within the center of McNamara as a person.
The result is an absorbing history lesson where the
lesson is that human nature may actually force us to
make the same mistakes time and time again.
The Fog of War introduces McNamara in the same
way every Morris subject is introduced: Sitting in front
of a bare wall and looking directly into the camera.
The story of his life plays like an inverse Forrest
Gump. Gump was a simple man who found himself affecting
history without being conscience of what he was doing.
McNamara is an incredibly intelligent guy who was aware
of his place in history but seemingly not concerned
about the consequences. McNamara describes his first
memory of this history in 1918 at the age of two. "I
know you find this hard to believe, but I can remember
seeing people standing on the tops of trolley carts
celebrating the end of World War I." Already, the
spoils of war are embedded in the mind of a child who
should not be developing memories. He thrived in elementary
school thanks to an odd sense of competition. "All
of the sharp Asian kids were trying to beat this scrawny
little Irish boy". The unusually intelligent McNamara
excelled at UC-Berkeley during the Great Depression
where the top three students were, "me, who went
to Harvard, another guy who went to Oxford, and another
that went to work for $65 a month and was glad to have
it." At Harvard, McNamara's skills at statistics
caught the eye of the US military. He was brought in
to add numbers to the strategy employed against the
Japanese. McNamara worked closely with General Curtis
LeMay. With McNamara's predictions and LeMay's gung-ho
attitude, the team bombed 67 Japanese cities. This included
the Tokyo bombing that killed 100,000 and nearly burnt
the almost allwooden structured city to the ground.
McNamara admits there was a great amount of moral shakiness
to committing these kind of acts, but rationalized that
morality in war is generally determined "by the
side that wins." McNamara points most of the decision-making
on the cigar chomping LeMay, but Morris clearly documents
McNamara's final say-so on several attacks. After the
war, he opted to work for Ford Motor Company rather
than return to Harvard. As a part of the management
team, McNamara demanded more research in marketing and
developed safer and more affordable cars based upon
the same statistical measurements he used in calculating
civilian casualties in the Pacific. After several years,
McNamara rose to the position of President, the first
head of the company not within the Ford family. But
only five weeks into his tenure, McNamara was selected
by John F. Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Defense.
With Kennedy, McNamara was at his side during the Cuban
Missile Crisis ("We were lucky" are the only
consoling words McNamara offers for why we didn't go
to nuclear war) but is tested severely after Kennedy
is assassinated. In response to the growing concern
in Vietnam - the Communism of Ho Chi Mihn would only
lead to Australia - Lyndon Johnson escalated bombing
and troop involvement. While McNamara cites circumstance
and Johnson's "inability" at foreign policy,
he was in middle of key decisions about what should
be done and when. Before Johnson left his office, McNamara
was "either fired or had quit." He claims
he didn't know but "everyone assured me I was fired."
After "being fired" from the Department of
Defense, McNamara left to become President of the World
Bank from 1967 to 1981.
Morris' style gives the audience an eerie view into
McNamara. Using a camera rigged to act as a television
screen, McNamara stares directly at the camera. At the
age of eighty-five, he is still sharp and dapper whose
matter-of-fact tone keeps his accusations polite and
his bragging humbled. Even when he's talking about the
death of thousands of civilians, he sounds like he's
rattling off a theory in a Western Civilization lecture.
Morris attempts to distort the perception by tilting
his camera to the side so the view of McNamara is always
a little cock-eyed. Add this with Morris' high-pitched
voice screaming behind his video wall and even the most
mellow observations feel intense. Even with this visual
commentary by the director, McNamara's tone resonates
throughout the events with a sense of detachment. Everything
- from seat belts to tank movement - sounds like an
abstract theory. McNamara's intelligence feels more
suited for a classroom than a board room or a Cabinet
meeting. Morris frames this the best in a scene where
McNamara discusses the types of bombs that were dropped
on Tokyo. As McNamara discusses the weight of the planes
and the velocity of the arsenal, Morris shows footage
of these attacks. But slowly, the bombs begin morphing
into statistical equations and numbers. McNamara believes
there is no difference between a weapon that causes
destruction or the data used to reach a calculation.
Later on, when touching upon the criticism he received
for the Vietnam conflict, McNamara lists off a dozen
theories for why Vietnam did work and how things could
have been worse. While he's talking, Morris sets up
domino pieces (a reference to McNamara's "Domino
Theory", a belief that Communism in Saigon would
create Communism all over the Pacific), knocks them
down, and then puts the footage in reverse based upon
the McNamara's new theory. The audience hears all of
this and wonders how such an emotionally void person
became so influential. McNamara offers an idea on this,
but only implicitly. He refers to General LeMay's intolerance
of ambiguity as he "smoked his cigar". He
also blames Johnson for Vietnam by suggesting that "if
Kennedy hadn't died, those additional troops would never
have happened." He points these fingers even though
Morris shows evidence that McNamara suggested and even
approved several decisions he now criticizes. This would
be hypocrisy to anyone else, but McNamara sees everything
working in concept rather than actual practice. The
subtext of his criticism seems to be: "I know that
I was smarter than LeMay. And I know I was smarter than
Johnson. Hell, I was probably smarter than the situation.
But what are you going to do?" Apparently, the
criticism of the current President being asleep at the
wheel is nothing new. As though moments like the Bay
of Pigs and Hiroshima weren't bad enough, McNamara's
cool and academic tone makes one wonder how much worse
it could have been.
McNamara's personality and approach to foreign policy
plays well into the statements in The Fog of War.
Morris bookmarks the film with little "life
lessons" derived from McNamara's experience. They
include little tidbits such as "Empathize with
your enemy" and "Use your data". While
these initially appear as a somewhat humorous take on
the self-help biographies of recent time, they are more
like threats within the context of the material. "Or
else" should be added to each point. These lessons
say a great deal about a leader who barely flinched
when an antiwar Quaker set himself on fire right under
his window. When asked about how these protests affected
his view of the war, he responded: "I had the facts
on my side." It seems cruel, but McNamara fleshes
out the same feelings everyone defender of war notes
throughout history. He talks about the subjective morality
of war, he talks about how leaders rationalize the decisions
they make, he talks about his own reluctance about the
decisions he made. He knows about the curse of hindsight
and and he knows about the facts on hand at the time.
McNamara never apologizes but he very rarely makes that
many excuses. He senses Morris' reserve and disdain
but does not give in. Unlike Gump, McNamara is completely
aware of the consequences of his actions. But he knows
there isn't anything that can be done at this point.
The audience watches McNamara and they hear the same
oddly calm voices they hear on Meet the Press each
and every week. Most Americans have their own opinions
about the course of "Our" history and "Our"
place on the globe. It's easy for me to make my mind
up about the current administration and their argument
for the "peace in the Middle East". And hey,
I believe that Saddam Hussein was an evil prick who
gassed his own people. I believe he deserves his fate.
I believe that the Iraqi people deserve a shot at freedom
and self-government. I would also love to believe that
Iraq could be used as a model for democracy in that
part of the world. But I believe that Bush lied to me
and to the rest of the world. I believe he compromised
our legitimacy with other governments and that the Middle
East will become more unstable before it gets better.
But the key McNamara lesson is that "we can only
pick our moral standing based upon other countries and
how their moral standing exist at the same time about
the same situation. In Vietnam, no one in Europe or
Asia thought that what we were doing was the right decision.
We should never do something unilaterally." Once
the audience stopped muttering in disbelief, McNamara
goes back to defending US foreign policy. Inevitably,
Morris frames The Fog of War by saying that human
nature will always defeat the lessons learned from history.
And it is this mortal flaw that will haunt us for the
duration of our existence on this planet.
It's easy to consider the current situation in Iraq
and Afghanistan when sitting through The Fog of War.
The assured arrogance, the uncertainty, and the
sheer human faults that stand in the shadow of great
world events seem all the more modern and familiar when
heard in historical terms. But the saddest and most
tragic thing this film says is that these events and
attitudes are doomed to be repeated somewhere in the
next several decades. It's unavoidable and it is inevitable.
When this moment comes again to our society, will we
go back into history and look at that footage of Bush
on Meet the Press defending his actions and creating
his own morality of the situation as he sees fit. Will
we once again demonize him and call him a reckless zealot
hell-bent on a worldview that has been disapprove time
and again? Or will we look at him the way we look at
McNamara now? Just another powerful man that is a little
too human for our own comfort? History will repeat and
we will no more be the wiser.