Errol Morris'The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert Strange McNamara A Review by Jimmy O.

 

"Jack Valenti? That crazy bastard nailed more secretaries than Kennedy and Johnson put together! And he could party like nobody's business. Wow."

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.