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February 7, 2004

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Throughout Errol Morris's fascinating documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (IMDB), former Secretary of Defense McNamara, one of the most volatile figures of the Vietnam era, proves to be an incredibly compelling figure, someone who can be remarkably self-critical and reflective about the decisions he made to deepen our involvement in the Vietnam War. Or someone who can speak frankly about calculating how to make US fire bombing missions in Japan during World War II more efficient, even acknowledging that had the US lost the war, he would likely have been tried as a war criminal. But then, just as quickly, McNamara closes down, refusing to address Morris's prompt to further reflect on US culpability in Vietnam. As I watched the film, I became increasingly fascinated by these gaps, by those moments when McNamara refused to comment further about a subject.

The film itself is an incredible achievement, the kind of film that Errol Morris was put on this planet to make. It primarily features talking-head footage of interviews Morris recently conducted with the 85-year-old McNamara using a technology called the "Interrotron" (see Ebert's explanation), a video device that allows Morris and his subject to look into each other eyes while the subject also looks directly into the camera, creating a sense of intimacy between the spectator and the interviewee. Morris mixes in actuality footage of World War II and the Vietnam War with shots of tape recorders playing audiotapes of McNamara's meetings with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He also includes charts and graphs, time-lapse photography, and shots of newspaper articles, often cutting so quickly that it becomes impossible to absorb everything we've seen. The film is driven by Philip Glass' melancholic, mysterious score. The result is a challenging film that bears multiple viewings.

Framed around McNamara's eleven "lessons," the documentary traces his life and career, starting with what McNamara describes as his earliest memory, the celebrations of the end of the First World War when he was two years old, with McNamara acknowledging the unlikelihood of such a vivid, early memory. This sequence sets the tone for the film's consistent practice of undermining our ability to know or understand the world with complete certainty. This sense of uncertainty about the ways in which history is written seems to guide Morris's approach in The Fog of War, as he recently acknowledged in his notes on the film:

"At first I thought McNamara's failure to apologize was a weakness of the book [1995's "In Retrospect," which inspired "Fog of War"]; now I think that it is one of his strengths," writes Morris in his director's statement. "It is much more difficult to analyze the causes of error than apologize for it."
Rather than an apology, which is essentially designed to erase the past, McNamara provides us with at least a small window into the Vietnam era, albeit one obscured by the very "fog of war' that he describes.

The film challenges McNamara's credibility in several places, sometimes through the audio recordings of past conversations, sometimes by the questions we hear Morris ask off-screen, but as Slate writer Fred Kaplan points out, McNamara's (usually self-serving) narratives of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and Vietnam War clearly misrepresent what actually happened, but like Kaplan, I don't see these misrepresentations as flaws in Morris's film, which is less a history of US foreign policy than it is a reflection on the production of historical truth. As McNamara himself acknowledges, he would have been viewed much differently historically had the US lost World War II, leading one observer to recall Benjamin's observation that history is written by the victors.

Fog of War also offers a profound critique of what McNamara refers to as "rationality," which might be understood in terms of the relentless and calculated efficiency that was a part of his celebrated image as a World War II planner and as an executive at Ford (he helped in the development of seat belts), an observation that challenges some of McNamara's earlier assertions. Again, this willingness to engage in self-reflection, if not self-criticism, was compelling, even with McNamara's refusal to pursue some of these points, and perhaps because of the refusal, the things he couldn't--or wouldn't--say.

The film offers several moments that may tempt viewers to draw comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. Several of McNamara's lessons acknowledge this perception, including his first lesson, "Empathize with your enemy." McNamara comments only about his role in the Vietnam War, never mentioning Iraq or the current war, but it's relatively clear from the coded language that he feels that some of his lessons still apply. In his case, the failure to understand that Vietnam perceived the war as a war of decolonization was partially to blame for the failure of the US military. To be sure, McNamara is quick to dismiss these connections while Morris more openly encourages making these comparisons.

Overall, this is a compelling film, one that demands multiple viewings.

Posted by chuck at February 7, 2004 10:34 PM

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