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Film Review: The Fog of War

The Fog of War (2003; Directed by Errol Morris)

The subtitle of Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary is Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. But one of these enumerated lessons resonates more deeply than any other, and even contradicts some of the other ten: “Rationality will not save us”. Above all else, this is the thesis of The Fog of War, as a reasonable, intelligent, analytically-minded elder statesman tries to make sense of why he and the institutions he was party to launched the American military into a disastrous and demoralizing war in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Morris’ splendidly withering and honest document of his conversations with the now-deceased but then-85-year-old McNamara constitutes a ruminatory, truncated, self-critical feature-length filmed memoirs of the man who presided (against his better judgment, if you believe his account of events) over the escalation of the Vietnam War during the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration between 1964 and 1968. Morris interviewed the clear and talkative McNamara for at least 20 hours, utilizing a device called an Interrotron which creates the illusion of interviewer and interviewee talking directly to each other through the use of cameras and two-way mirrors. Whether this elaborate technique improves the interaction between Morris and McNamara is far from certain (the director is heard tossing questions at his subject from time to time but is never seen). What is certain is the effect of the use of this contraption on the viewer: McNamara discusses his actions, his second thoughts, his regrets while appearing to look out of the screen and maintaining eye contact with the viewer. It’s a disarming experience, quite unlike the usual averted-eyeline detachment of talking-head documentaries.

Intercutting the interview footage of McNamara with archival photos, film clips, and audio from White House meetings on Vietnam, Morris allows his subject to narrate his own story (though he adds the Eleven Lessons subtitles, albeit drawn from McNamara’s own words). A rich and fascinating story it is, as McNamara is elevated by his mind, his work ethic, and historical circumstances to a degree at Berkeley, a Harvard professorship, a key role as an analyst and planner for the U.S. Air Force in World War II, an executive post with Ford Motor Company, and eventually the position of Defense Secretary and his post-cabinet post as head of the World Bank.

Along the way, McNamara describes personal milestones but more importantly contentious and morally ambiguous decisions that affected (and often cost) thousands of lives. Again and again, he returns to his focus on data, research, evidence, and a rigorous, unemotional approach to analyzing the hard stuff that drives policies. This process of gleaning preferable and efficient courses of action from a rational, analytic approach to data collection and pattern deciphering is classic conventional rational-progressive wisdom, made especially conspicuous in the midst of the George W. Bush Administration whose ideological fantasies and data-fudging in support of a dubious war are being analogously responded to by Morris (though not explicitly by McNamara, who felt a former Defense Secretary had no right to comment on the decisions of a current one). But McNamara’s examples expose the considerable blind spots of this approach.

There’s one such interesting contrast that Morris edits together. McNamara describes his insistent crusade while rising through the ranks at Ford of collecting data on collision deaths of motorists. This data suggested that a focus on better safety features, and an emphasis on seatbelt usage in particular, could save lives, and McNamara’s initiative on this basis did reduce accidental automobile fatalities, to his great pride. This rational vector to preventing deaths is completely reversed in his military experiences, however, as apparently sober-minded calculations lead to the deaths of thousands.

McNamara discusses his time in WWII under the command of the imperious Air Force General Curtis LeMay, an uncompromising tyrant with none of McNamara’s qualms about recourse to extreme methods to achieve ultimate goals. LeMay, utilizing the analyses produced by McNamara and his team, judged that deadly fire bombings of Japanese cities (which, during the war, were built entirely of wood) would cost fewer American lives and maybe even fewer Japanese lives than would a ground invasion of the islands of Japan. Tens of thousands of Japanese civilians perished, and similar cost-benefit ratios would be taken into account when the U.S. government decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. McNamara can’t hide his admiration for LeMay any better than he can his animus for his methods and many of his results.

The Fog of War is mostly absorbed by an examination (sometimes a self-examination) of McNamara’s role as Secretary of Defense in the vital, tragic mid-1960s escalation of the Vietnam War. These events obviously haunt him, and his thoughts on the war that broke America are complex and contradictory and are better left for the viewer to absorb and consider themselves without too much critical hand-holding. McNamara does relate an anecdote about meeting a former North Vietnamese foreign minister in the early 1990s who confronted him about the American imperialist actions in the country, widely viewed by contemporary Vietnamese as a mere continuation of the French colonial presence in the country. McNamara calls this view absurd, but moments later insists it was about Cold War politics, which were, of course, about projecting imperial spheres of influence on both the democratic and communist poles. For all of his obvious rational intelligence, McNamara’s inculcation into the absolutist good vs. evil narrative of the American side of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union blinds him now as it blinded him in the mid-1960s to the fatal miscalculation of the Vietnam conflict, namely that the war was a domino theory demonstration of the spread of communism and not a civil war with overtones of independence from Western colonial domination.

McNamara’s lessons (or Morris’ lessons mapped onto McNamara’s ideas) strive for the epistemological comfort of classification and summation but prove as unsettling as they are enlightening, if not more so. McNamara repeats the classic boomer-liberal canard that things may have turned out much differently in Vietnam if John F. Kennedy has lived and carried out his intention to draw down the military adviser commitment that the U.S. military had there. He likewise throws LBJ under the bus, ultimately laying the blame for the war on the President who he claims to have felt to be making wrong decisions even at the time. But what Morris gleans from his interviews with this giant of ambivalent American statesmanship is the false comfort of data, reason, and institutional inertia, and how that comfort can inadvertently but almost inevitably lead to horrors.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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  1. May 14, 2015 at 5:52 pm

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