Fog of War, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/24/05 15:45:20

"Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Winner of the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Fog of War (rated PG-13 for images and thematic issues of war and destruction) is a fascinating, thought-provoking, but ultimately frustrating experience, primarily because Errol Morris's quarry, Robert McNamara, best known as the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961-1967 during the Vietnam War, directly avoids answering questions about his own personal responsibility for that war.

The Fog of War, however, is more (and less) than a documentary about one of the principal architects of the war in Vietnam, and plays out like a career retrospective that unfortunately ends with McNamara's dismissal as Secretary of Defense by Johnson in 1967 and fails to explore his stewardship of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (i.e., the World Bank), from 1968 through 1981. Perhaps Morris realized audience interest would wane during an extended discussion of McNamara's involvement with the World Bank, but the connection between the World Bank's lending policies and third-world debt is difficult to ignore, and probably just as difficult to explain coherently (and fairly) through the documentary format.

McNamara served under two U.S. presidents, first John F. Kennedy, and after his assassination in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson. He resigned in 1967 after a public disagreement with Johnson on the direction of the war. McNamara had concluded that Vietnam was an unwinable war, and the only recourse a gradual reduction of troops and disengagement. Morris ambivalently paints McNamara as both architect and conscience of the Vietnam War. Early tape recordings from the Kennedy Administration, when U.S. involvement was limited to 16,000 military "advisors" indicate that McNamara understood the risks involved in escalating involvement in a foreign conflict without clearly defined goals. Later, when Johnson became president, McNamara is chided on tape by Johnson for his defeatist position. McNamara, however, chose loyalty over dissent (with a striking parallel to our current Secretary of State, Colin Powell) and used his organizational skills, first gained during World War II working for the U.S. Army Statistics Office, and later in private enterprise, as a vice-president and later president of the Ford Motor Company, to handle the difficult logistics of fighting a war in Southeast Asia.

His defense in The Fog of War for escalating involvement in Vietnam was two-fold: the Cold War, which compelled both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union into dangerous "proxy" wars in the developing world, and the "domino theory" (if one small country in Southeast Asia fell to Soviet- or Chinese-backed communism, then other countries would surely follow), then others once taught as sound politic theory in universities everywhere. Morris illustrates the "domino theory" at least twice, using McNamara's musings about the Cold War as voiceover as the camera tracks across a playing board covered with criss-crossing and falling dominoes. A bit pedantic, perhaps, but it also helps to illustrate how in thrall even the smartest public officials were to a theory that had never been proven in practice, but created out of deep-seated fears and anxieties. Few, if any, policy makers or scholars could see through the theories and the Cold War to what, in hindsight, seems obvious: that the war in Vietnam, costing almost three and a half million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives, was, for the Vietnamese, a war of liberation from imperialists and colonialists (they saw the U.S. as essentially replacing the French). Tellingly, McNamara admits as much, but only in the context of a 1999 meeting in Saigon with government leaders, where he got into a shouting match with a former minister. Did it really take this encounter to change his perspective on the nature of the Vietnam War? His response, to be generous, seems disingenuous.

This defense ties into McNamara's definition of "The Fog of War:" in the midst of war, rational, considered judgments are negatively affected by political, social, cultural, economic, and military complexities (in short, incomplete, ever-shifting information). Obfuscation? Rationalization? Possibly, given that McNamara had sufficient hindsight, both in 1963 in advising Kennedy and later multiple times during the escalating conflict (and culminating in the 1967 November memo to Johnson that derailed his government career), to question the course of action, and suggest a different path, one that would have saved both Vietnamese and American lives.

Curiously, Morris' infatuation with his subject is evident through the subtitle he gives The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The so-called lessons range from the obvious, "There's something beyond one's self," (lesson 3), to the organizational, "Maximize efficiency," (lesson 4), to the pessimistic, "Rationality will not save us," to the (possibly) misanthropic/pessimistic, "You can't change human nature," (lesson 11), to the simple, but insightful, "Empathize with your enemy," (lesson 1). The illustration for the first lesson is the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the apparent ability of U.S. policy makers to empathize with Nikita Khrushchev’s need to both win concessions and save face. McNamara later concedes that this lesson was unlearned or forgotten during the Vietnam War. Later, lesson 5, "Proportionality should be a guideline in war" is illustrated by a lengthy, if ultimately evasive, discussion of the firebombing of Tokyo, where 100,000 civilians died in a single night, followed by a series of disturbing statistics, noting that 67 Japanese cities were, at minimum, partially destroyed in bombing runs over Japan. The discussion inevitably leads to the issue of war crimes, but the audience is left to contemplate McNamara's inexact response.

McNamara quotes LeMay's comments about war crimes, but by quoting someone else's comments, he distances himself from acknowledging personal responsibility. I'm not necessarily implying that he believed the firebombing was right, just that it was permissible, and that morality was a "weak force" in limiting action meant to defeat the enemy in any way possible. He also mentioned the utilitarian argument: more American lives would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. True? Hard to tell. As McNamara admits, historians dislike counterfactuals, what-ifs. We do know, however, that the U.S. was no longer targeting strictly military or infrastructure targets. AND he was wrong about one thing: there was a law in place, international law (the Geneva Conventions), albeit practically unenforceable during WWII. In war, McNamara seems to suggest, no rules apply, except winning. To the winner go the war crimes tribunals, presumably. Here, it's hard to understand why Morris didn't press McNamara further (perhaps he did, and McNamara's response was left on the cutting room floor).

What about his culpability for his role in Vietnam? Responsibility doesn't come easily (it actually never comes) for McNamara. When asked by Morris to take some ownership over Vietnam, McNamara nervously answers, "It was LBJ's war." Earlier, in discussing his involvement with Colonel Curtis LeMay (lesson 5, above), and the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, McNamara seems to concede a point made by LeMay: if the Japanese had won the war, they would have tried Americans as war criminals. What appears to be a fascinating avenue of inquiry, however, is quickly dropped, leaving the audience assuming that McNamara believes in a shallow kind of moral relativism, based not on international law, or higher moral principles, but on political and military might. Later, in discussing Vietnam again, he mentions the mistakes made by "military commanders" during the war, but only vaguely, and mentions mistakes not in the context of culpability, but in the context of moving forward, and not repeating those mistakes. Perhaps admitting anything more would have destroyed a man whose justifications and self-rationalizations have allowed him to look himself in the mirror every morning for the last forty years. For anyone else, this kind of behavior could only be described as "willful blindness." For everyone else watching The Fog of War, the much-needed closure that the Vietnam War still needs isn't forthcoming.

The documentary, however, closes with yet another unanswered question: when Morris asks McNamara why he didn't protest the war during Johnson's last year in office (loyalty, duty, presumably), or during Nixon's presidency (when loyalty was no longer an issue), his typically evasive response proves an earlier assertion: answer the question you hoped was asked, rather than the question that was actually asked.

What contemporary lesson or lessons can we then derive from "The Fog of War?" Drawing obvious parallels to the current administration and the war in Iraq, McNamara states, "I do not believe we should ever apply [ ] economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we'd followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." If anything, that's one lesson that should be re-iterated to every new U.S. president at the beginning of his (or her) administration. I doubt, though, that anyone who might have voiced that opinion to the Bush administration in February 2003, a month before the United States invaded Iraq, would have made a difference.

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