Lessons From War and Life

by Caitlin Shamberg

Newtopia Magazine

Errol Morris examines Robert McNamara in "The Fog of War".
Errol Morris's stylish documentary, The Fog of War, explores the life and character of Robert S. McNamara, often shown wielding a pen as if he is rewriting history. Opening with the Cuban missile crisis, the film follows McNamara as he meanders through modern history from WWI to the Vietnam War, when he served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Following McNamara's lead, Morris relies primarily on the former Secretary's rattling voice to narrate this valuable, yet dangerously subjective history lesson, while at the same time, crafting entertaining and beautiful cinema.

Subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, the documentary seeks to school us in how to fight a good war, by analyzing our recent history and examining both good and bad decisions. From lesson six: "Get the Data," to the disturbing lesson nine: "In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil," the maxims vary in their profundity. Although superficial, this structure adds a necessary pacing to the film and builds suspense as we traverse the tensions and tragedies of our recent history.

Most tense is the recounting of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the infamous thirteen days during which the United States came dangerously close to a nuclear confrontation with Cuba, where Castro had 162 Russian warheads pointed our way. Through subtle negotiations, Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to quell the crisis- in exchange for not being blown up, Kennedy agreed to remove American missiles in Turkey, which were targeted at the USSR. "The cold war," says McNamara, "Hell it was a hot war."

It is during this section that we are first made aware of Morris' presence as we hear him telling his subject, "we attempted to invade Cuba, to assassinate Castro," to which McNamara gives the unfortunate response "I didn't know." Instead of taking McNamara's word as absolute truth, Morris interjects comments and questions throughout the film. The director keeps McNamara in check, giving the viewer a helpful second source of information.

We also gain perspective through Morris's use of perfectly chosen and exquisitely edited archival footage that illuminates the intensity of the time, making us truly thankful that we didn't blow up the nearby island. However, as lucky as we may have been (McNamara claims that in the end, we simply "got lucky"), history goes on to prove that we still failed to learn what the documentary bills as lesson number one: "empathize with your enemy."

Before pursuing his career as a documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris was a private investigator. His skillful probing got David Harris extremely close to admitting to murdering a cop in the1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line; the film effectively gained freedom for Randall Adams who was wrongfully jailed for the crime. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) gave us the stories of four men with different obsessions: topiary, mole rats, lion taming, and robots. More recently, Morris has crafted documentary portraits of electric chair inventor and Holocaust denier, Fred A. Leuchter; and genius, Stephen Hawking. His unique style of documentary-portraitism interweaves surreal imagery and compelling interviews, which provide us with a well-rounded and cinematic experience.

The Fog of War is Errol Morris' seventh documentary. It's his third to incorporate a score by Philip Glass, who has composed music for many films including The Hours, Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy, and written modern accompaniments for such classics as Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, and Dracula (1931). For The Fog of War, Glass has crafted a piece that is true to his style: moody, modern and frenetic. His score plays perfectly off of elegant montages from footage culled from the archives, including dream-like images of weapons plants, and planes dropping bombs, as well as Morris' own creations including the motif of dominoes falling on a map of South East Asia.

The filmmaker spent twenty-three hours interviewing McNamara using his "interrotron." This invention projects the director's visage on the camera's lens, giving the illusion that the subject is talking directly to him, while he is really looking the camera (and thus, the viewer) dead-on. This makes for a tense relationship between us and the eighty-five year old McNamara, who sits stiffly in a suit and lacks facial expressions.

Recently, McNamara has made an effort to recast himself in American history. In 1995, he published In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, which contains much of the same insight as The Fog of War. It was this book that got Morris thinking about the film. According to a Dec. 21 Washington Post article, Morris felt that the book had been wrongly classified as an apologia, which was too simple when considering the complexity of Vietnam. "Review after review talked about McNamara's apology, confessions, this mea culpa. And I felt the book was none of those things. It was rather an attempt to go back into history and try to understand it-the history of which he was so much a part. It was not an attempt to ask for forgiveness, it was more interesting than that."

Indeed, Morris' film brings an interesting perspective to McNamara's story. Prior to his 1961 appointment as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy, McNamara had been working at the Ford motor company, where he embraced the notion of market research and worked to develop the Ford Falcon. This was a smaller cheaper car for a nation ready to move away from tailfins and bright colors. McNamara speaks proudly of his data analysis that led to the installation of seatbelts in Fords, thereby saving countless lives.

Later in the film, he acknowledges the death of 58,000 Americans and over three million Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. The filmmaker welcomes this sort of irony. We learn at the onset that McNamara's earliest memory is of "a city exploding with joy, I was two years old. I remember the tops of the street cars being crowded with human beings cheering and kissing and screaming." It was the end of WWI, Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. The US had won the "war to end all wars."

McNamara got his military training while serving under General Curtis Le May, a true war monger, who valued nuclear weapons and massive bombing campaigns. McNamara provides a disturbing account of his participation in the WWII firebombing of 67 Japanese cities, which destroying huge areas, and killed 100,000 civilians in Tokyo alone. ("I was part of the mechanism," he says). This was prior to the 1945 atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "If we'd lost the war, we'd be prosecuted as war criminals," says McNamara, [LeMay], and I'd say, I, were acting as war criminals." Perhaps to avoid the possibility of lingering on this scary thought, he concludes his revelation with a question, "what makes it immoral if you lose and not if you win?"

On an intellectual level, McNamara grapples with questions of morality throughout the film (he talks fondly of the philosophy classes he took while studying at UC Berkeley). However, he evades all questions of responsibility. Quite simply, there is little sense that he feels badly (or feels at all) about his involvement in WWII or his role during Vietnam. "Some people think I'm a son of a bitch," he says flatly. Although McNamara admits mistakes: "We were looking at it as part of the cold war, but it wasn't." The former Secretary lacks emotion, and it is only while describing the plot of land where Kennedy is buried, that he begins to cry.

Most chilling is McNamara's telling of the story of Norman Morrison, who set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon to protest the war. McNamara recounts this tale and then says he has things in common with Norman. This comparison is a bit confusing and difficult to accept; it only serves to further underline the severe disconnect between McNamara and the vast segment of America that viewed Vietnam as a mistake.

Perhaps this disconnect grew out of the fog of war - the notion that rational judgment is lost in wartime. To show us just how irrational and confused America's politicians were during Vietnam, Errol Morris makes us privy to recently released recordings of conversations that McNamara had with both the presidents he served. We can only deduce that our leaders, Kennedy included, had no idea what was really going on. These are the moments when Morris's anti-war perspective (he protested the war while a student at the University of Wisconsin) and McNamara's ability to bring light to our foreign policy mesh completely, bringing an understanding of history that hopefully will keep our government from making the same mistakes in the future.

Between 1995-1998, in order to try to figure out for himself what went wrong, McNamara met with North Vietnamese leaders to hold conversations about the conflict. He recounts bluntly asking if the Vietnamese knew that the United States was trying to liberate them. He is rebuffed by a sharp "didn't you study history?" This history includes Ho Chi Minh's 1945 declaration of independence from France and the fervent desire to maintain this freedom. That the US wanted to liberate the country was irrelevant and only made things worse; as the numbers of Vietnamese killed by Americans increased, the harder the Vietnamese fought. "We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War, not what they saw it as, a civil war," McNamara learned during the meetings. And so we are taught in lesson eight, "be prepared to re-examine your reasoning."

Although this lesson falls a little flat after the fact, it resonates powerfully when we examine current events. It is nearly impossible to watch the film without thinking about Iraq. For this reason alone the film should be required viewing as it leaves the viewer wondering if we have learned anything at all from our recent history, especially when we hear McNamara's statement, "we should never apply our power unilaterally." And if applied to weapons of mass destruction, "believing and seeing are both often wrong." In the end, our country might benefit from taking some advice from the self-proclaimed war criminal, particularly when he states "the human race needs to think more about killing, about conflict; is this what we want in the 21st Century?"

Newtopia Magazine