“any military commander who is honest with himself
over those he’s speaking to
will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power
he’s killed people, unnecessarily – his own troops or other troops
through mistakes, through errors of judgement…
a 100, or 1000′s or tens of thousands of people”
the full title for this masterpiece of a documentary is: the fog of war: eleven lessons from the life of robert s. mcnamara. the film is structured around them. the lessons herein are as follows:
1. empathize with your enemy
2. rationality will not save us
3. there’s something beyond ones self
4. maximize efficiency
5. proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. get the data
7. belief and seeing are often both wrong
8. be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
9. in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10. never say never
11. you can’t change human nature
this film is a shatteringly patient masterpiece of deconstruction. errol morris got a lot of attention with the thin blue line, though gates of heaven has proven itself more re-watchable. i’ve read that some people call fast, cheap and out of control his first, ‘great’ film, but i find a brief history of time and mr death endlessly watchable, too. go ahead, put them on a loop in my house. i’d hardly complain.
but let’s talk about fog of war. this film is an in-depth examination of the vietnam war vis-a-vis the outlook of the former secretary of defense during much of the conflict, robert mcnamara.
as with many of errol morris’ films, the fog of war uses an amazing integration of archival footage and meticulous editing which, combined with special effects, makes for a very effective narrative all it’s own. additionally, the film is well served by philip glass score, as usual with morris’ work.
robert mcnamara was 85 years old when he was interviewed for this film. during the vietnam war he had spent 7 years as the secretary of defense. after that he spent 13 years as head of the world bank.
the ‘lessons’ in the movie are gleaned through various moments in mcnamara’s eventful life. his middle name, by the way, is strange. yeah – robert strange mcnamara.
he was involved in world war 2 under the legendary general curtis lemay. lemay was famously parodied by george c scott in kubrick’s dr. strangelove. mcnamra was a ‘brain’ and helped crunch numbers. lemay was obsessed with the loss of his men vs how much of the ‘enemy’ that soldier could be credited with killing and how much damage they could do. mcnamara helped lemay figure out how they could truly get the most ‘bang’ for the buck.
lemay said to mcnamra that if they’d lost the war, they’d all have been prosecuted, that he and mcnamara were behaving as war criminals – firebombing cities in japan before the nuclear bombs were dropped. lemay recognized that what he was doing would be regarded as immoral – if the united states lost.
in the film, mcnamra wonders aloud: “what makes it immoral if you lose and moral if you win?”
but they did win. and after world war 2, mcnamara would transfer from the world of academia to the ford motor company. after studying the success of the volkswagen he helps brings out the falcon at ford, which is a huge success.
after a while, he starts to wonder about car accidents? he finds that every year 40,000 deaths from car wrecks occur and that a million injuries also occur. he wonders if this can be abated. after some research he fixes on padded instrument panels and seat belts, which were new at the time. he saves lives and helps nurse the ford motor company back to life. he is promoted to president of the ford motor company. he is the only non-ford family member to hold this post as this point.
this turns out to be a brief stint as president of ford. he quits when president kennedy calls and wants him to be secretary of defense.
quickly he finds himself embroiled in the cuban missile crisis. to hear him tell it, it was largely his and former ambassador tommy thompson’s guidance that helped kennedy avoid a third world war. “rational individuals came close to total destruction of their societies!”, he exclaims. mcnamara does not back away from this reality.
‘it was luck that saved us from nuclear war’
mcnamara on the cuban missile crisis
in jan 1992, 30 years after the cuban missile crisis, mcnamara had the chance to sit down with castro. castro confides that 162 warheads were already on cuba during the crisis. not only that, but castro tells mcnamara that he recommended that they be used, even though he knew cuba would be destroyed in the response. mcnamara emphatically says: ‘that’s how close we were’
this is where hawkish guys like mcnamara get their ideals from. it’s not based in some madness that makes them war crazy. they know the fallibility of reason and they know how negotiation can break down. they understand the ‘fog of war’, even though they may be caught up in it. they think they are making the best decision based on what they know. it just turns out that, in vietnam…..they were almost all the wrong decisions. mcnamara isn’t a bad man, as many of his detractors might assert. he’s just a smart guy who made some wrong decisions based on the information he had at the time. but all those decisions were made with the best intentions of keeping us and our way of life intact, as silly as that sounds.
“if we can’t persuade nations with comparable values
of the merit of our cause
we’d better re-examine our reasoning”
watching this film, i find it hard to dislike or even distrust mcnamara. he seems very forthcoming. well, as forthcoming as someone whose ‘mistakes’ have cost so many lives can be. i don’t fault him for this. he walks a tightrope in this film.
featured in the film are many recordings of him talking with the presidents kennedy and johnson. in the recordings, mcnamara seems to want to minimize our military exposure throughout. with kennedy this is a shared view. but after kennedy’s death, he’s largely overridden by the joint chiefs and president johnson.
in the end, there were 3,400,000 vietnamese killed and 58,000 american troops were dead. and nothing in vietnam changed.
the film has a couple of revealing, emotional parts. one is when mcnamara talks about the kennedy assassination. he was the one to pick the spot where kennedy would be laid to rest. he comes to tears as he recounts telling jackie about the spot he picked and learning that president kennedy himself had been there and remarked upon the same location’s beauty.
another telling moment is when mcnamara recounts the self immolation death of norman morrison, a quaker who was anti-war. this happened outside mcnamara’s office. mcnamara seems to have admiration for morrison’s beliefs and even for his commitment and action. he gets teary again at this point, when describing that morrison had initially set himself on fire while holding his daughter. the daughter was thrown off and, though her father burned, she survived and is alive today. this seemed especially important to mcnamara.
“we saw vietnam as an element of the cold war.
not, what they saw it as – a civil war
…we were wrong”
the lessons noted above are useful and revealing. many of these lessons seem to have been learned by mcnamara in hindsight, having acted only in the context of the moments during the war. on reflection, one gets the impression he sees a different path and regrets not having taken it. the lessons he provides would have surely caused him to take a different track when he was secretary of defense.
they seem simple.
empathize with your enemy – what does the other man want, and why? why can he not have it? can we both have what we want?
rationality will not save us – mere reason and negotiation often will not solve a problem. if you think this is not true, think of certain members of your family or people in your life. if you’re honest, you might agree.
there’s something beyond oneself – seeing the world separate from your point of view, and through the lens of the fact that you are a small part of the proceedings can really give you proper perspective
maximize efficiency – why spend energy (and in his case, lives) that you do not have to?
proportionality should be a guideline in war – in the second world war (and in the film), mcnamara makes use of this by comparing cities they were firebombing in japan to the proportional city in the united states. this gave them perspective on the impact of their actions. i don’t know if this is a rule just for war. it seems in life this consideration can make for a fresh outlook on a variety of scenarios
get the data – whenever possibly, quantify, study and run the numbers. try to understand what is happening from a purely scientific point of view, apart from your emotions
belief and seeing are often both wrong – belief is a form of conclusion. when you come to a conclusion you often cease to think critically about the matter at hand. and as to seeing, well, we all know that eyewitness testimony is notoriously suspect with respect to accuracy and truth
be prepared to reexamine your reasoning – always be ready to rethink the problem through, no matter what it is. how do you know you arrived at the just and proper conclusion? what can rethinking hurt?
in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil – in the context of war, this makes perfect sense. but does this also follow for day-to-day life? think of situations where you lied to your children, or did something that, at the time seems utterly necessary to maintain peace and order or the like, even though you know that it’s ‘wrong’ to do the thing.
never say never – except, of course, when it comes to never saying never. circumstances have a way of changing that aren’t always convenient for your ideology or outlook. are you prepared to digest new truth and move forward? or will you cling to a tree in your front yard during a hurricane?
you can’t change human nature – this one is self evident, or should be.