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Fog of War, The

dir: Errol Morris
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When you look upon the face of a man in his 80s, you tell yourself
that you can almost read his life in the lines and contours thereon.
At least that's the illusion I had watching this award-winning
documentary by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara. He's hardly a
household name around the world, but more than a few people should
remember the man who was the Secretary of Defense in the States during
one of the most turbulent times in the country's history. Although one
could argue the times were no less turbulent then than they are now.

One could almost say from watching this film that McNamara suffers
from a tremendous amount of guilt for his actions as the Secretary of
Defense. Surely he doesn't have deep regrets from his time as the head
of Ford, or his time as one of the highest paid executives in the
world. This fascinating glimpse into history almost seems to be an
extension of McNamara's search for redemption. In fact the method in
which he is filmed deliberately gives proceedings the appearance and
feel of a confessional.

To believe that McNamara's expiation comes through telling the truth
and nothing but would be the height of naivety, just as parts of the
documentary highlight McNamara's continued love of obfuscation. I
don't think Morris saw that as a problem, either. If there are details
that are, to put it kindly, remembered incorrectly, it does little to
detract from the fascinating portrait of the man the film is concerned
with. Nor does it change his central premise: that wars should not to
be entered into lightly, if at all.

McNamara himself comes across as a complicated individual, forthcoming
and evasive in his responses, criticised by all sides of the political
divide throughout his many and various careers. The historical record
is unlikely to be any kinder to him than time has been upon his
weathered face and decrepit body (though at 86 he is a feisty and spry
old chap). But his dissembling doesn't, at least for me detract from
the point of the film or the compelling nature of his admissions,
truthful or not.

Very little time is spent surveying the aspects of McNamara's life
that don't really have to do with war. We are given some scraps
regarding his marriage and having children. We are told about his
academic achievements and his work at Ford Motors. These make up
fractions of the doco's running time. The meat of the story focuses on
the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and towns during World War II, the
Cuban Missile Crisis and the sad, slippery slope of escalation that
resulted in the tragedy that was Vietnam.

For me the section with greatest poignancy covers the fire bombing of
Tokyo. The reason why it resonated with me so much I presume has to do
with the fact that I had watched Grave of the Fireflies on DVD a few
weeks ago, which makes mention of the same occasion, albeit in an
entirely different manner and with a different purpose. In the
animated classic, two children desperately struggle to survive after
their town is fire-bombed by US Forces. It is a work of fiction,
admittedly, based around actual events.

Well in Fog of War we get to meet the guy that takes credit for the
fire-bombing of Japan which resulted in the deaths of 100 000
civilians in one night alone and about a million overall. He goes on
to speak of the questionable morality of such actions, of
proportionality, of committing 'evil' for good ends. Of course neither
Morris nor McNamara are angling the implication that winning the war
against the Japanese was a bad idea. I doubt anyone's going to contend
that. Excluding some old Japanese kamikaze loonies of course. Other
than that the question coming foremost to my mind is: why does
McNamara take credit for something he had little if anything to do
with?

The person in command was General Curtis Le May, McNamara was
doing work as a statistician trying to improve, despite his
protestations to the contrary, the lethality of US Airforce bombing
runs through statistical analysis. It wasn't his decision whether
civilian populations were to be targeted, or which cities. It furthers
my perplexity to consider why he maximises his mea culpa for the
bombing of Japan, and minimises his responsibility for Vietnam later
on in the documentary. He raises the point through the purported
conversation he relates between himself and Le May where Le May states
that had the US lost the war the two of them would most likely have
been prosecuted as war criminals.

He goes on to say that the primary difficulty in the nuclear age is
that there is no margin of error with nuclear weapons, contrasting
their use with the bombing campaign which devastated Japan a long time
before the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like
everything he says this is debatable and contentious, but not without
obvious merit.

Intriguing doesn't mean frustrating, and whilst at times you wish that
Morris could nail McNamara down on something, you have to accept that
even at 85 I doubt anyone on the planet could get an answer out of
McNamara that he expressly didn't want to give. Too much of his life
has been spent, by his own admission, giving answers to the questions
he wished had been asked instead of answering the questions he'd
actually been asked. A man that good at being the consummate
bureaucrat isn't going to be tripped up easily. It's a fact of life
and of this documentary that his lies and omissions are as telling as
his actual statements.

From there the film looks at his time at Ford, becoming the first
non-Ford family CEO, the initiation of safety features in cars and his
rescue of the company from virtual oblivion. Whilst it gives an
opportunity for the director to have lots of shots of skulls being
dropped from a great height, it says little about the man apart from
the fact that he was successful in the realm of business before
becoming arguably one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the world.

He goes on to relate the complexities of one of the tensest times in
US history: the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the world was allegedly at
the closest it has ever been to nuclear annihilation. Again, whilst
the centre stage events show McNamara as adviser rather than
protagonist, it appears he misrepresents events, though to whose
benefit I can't identify. John F Kennedy is portrayed as level-headed
and a sure statesman surrounded by people that wanted to get revenge
on Cuba for turning Commie and to fuck up the Russians because they
couldn't stand the tension of the Cold War. McNamara claims he was one
of the voices of reason that advocated negotiation instead of attack.

He then relates a commonly propagated anecdote that apparently was
debunked a long time ago as to how Kennedy resolved the crisis. He
gives credence to an old lie that Nikita Krushchev, Soviet premier at
the time sent two telegrams, and Kennedy responded to the less
belligerent one, agreeing not to invade Cuba in return for the Soviet
withdrawal of missiles. But the reality is that Kennedy agreed to a
trade-off, whereby US missiles were removed from Turkey to allow
Krushchev and Castro in Cuba to save face in the removal of theirs.

McNamara probably has a stack of reasons for sticking with the old
lie, not least of which being the fact that he himself had advocated a
massive 7 day bombing campaign followed by a full-scale invasion
(Source: Sheldon Stern, Averting the Final Failure, which compiles the
data from the actual tapes of these meetings during the crisis). I
don't know what those reasons are, and Morris doesn't pick him up on
it.

You could argue that forearmed with that knowledge it renders that
sequence somewhat pointless, but the overarching themes that McNamara
and Morris are addressing are no less powerful in their depiction: the
idea that rationality doesn't necessarily lead to rational outcomes.

McNamara's entire academic and professional life was structured around
the triumph of the intellect, the cold comfort of empirical evidence
and the value of analysing numerical data over anecdotal reports or
opinions. Thus he is the champion and standard bearer of logic over
emotion. In this conflict he asserts that rationality didn't make the
situation any less precarious because of the lack of understanding
between the two regimes.

Furthermore he contends that a lack of empathy, a lack of
understanding towards the Soviets was making the situation even worse.
It may sound awfully New Age to refer to such matters in the context
of Realpolitik and nuclear brinkmanship, but their point remains valid
to some degree. He furthers the story that Kennedy was advised by
Llewellyn Thompson, former ambassador to the Soviet Union, that the
situation could be negotiated because he personally knew Krushchev
would be amenable to it.

This is crap of course, since Kennedy wanted a negotiated solution
over any and every type of military action from day 3 of the crisis
onwards, but it does go towards McNamara's creative interpretation of
how Kennedy made those negotiations work.

He relates something of incredible interest at the end of this
sequence (prior to tearfully mentioning Kennedy's assassination)
regarding a conversation that he had with Castro in the late 80s. The
gist of this conversation is that Castro confirmed that there were
already nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba by the time of the
crisis (something which they apparently didn't know for certain), that
had the US invaded he would have attacked the States with them, and
that he recommended to the Soviets that on the occasion of an invasion
that they too should attack the States with nuclear weapons, all but
ensuring Cuba's complete annihilation. McNamara holds up his thumb and
finger afterwards to represent how close the world came to mutually
assured destruction: the distance between his thumb and forefinger, at
least in Australia are referred to as the length of a bee's dick.

The doco enters its saddest chapter, relating the origins and
escalations of the Vietnam War. After Kennedy's death Lyndon B Johnson
became president and, according to our storyteller, kept making the
situation worse as McNamara kept trying to get the US out of the war.
Two things bugged me whilst watching this section, the first being the
fact that McNamara still claims to be naive about the Gulf of Tonkin
incident. Pretending that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was anything
other than the 'managed' event that it was is an act of such
all-encompassing shamelessness that I still can't decide whether
McNamara has being telling the lie for so long that he actually
believes that it's the truth, or that he can never bring himself to
admit the reality of the situation even now at death's door.

The other item that caused me consternation was the section where, as
one of the lessons McNamara magnanimously doles out to us lucky plebs
in the audience, he claims that one of the aspects that should have
told him and the US Administration that the war was a bad idea was the
fact that no other countries supported the US in its war against
alleged Communist aggression (ie that the States was acting
unilaterally) in Vietnam. Well, I think the families of the 500 or so
Australian soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam would see things
differently. That McNamara himself, the so-called architect of the
Vietnam War didn't know about Australia's involvement makes me wonder
how narrow his point of view was on the conflict, both then and now.
That's not to detract from the sacrifice of the lives of over 57 000
US soldiers, 4500 South Korean soldiers and the deaths of over a
million Vietnamese people that McNamara is ultimately responsible for,
despite his assertion that it was all LBJ's doing. Plus let's not
forget his approval of, though he claims he doesn't remember actually
doing so, the use of Agent Orange and napalm to combat the evil Commie
menace where they lived.

When asked about the deaths he's responsible for during his time as
Secretary, he dissembles by saying that half of the overall US
casualties occurred during his reign, which is a tremendous example of
the man's use of quantitative data to reduce lives to meaningless
statistics. Yet at the same time he clearly feels guilty, it's just
that his attempts at absolution are carefully constructed so as to
prevent the meticulously arrayed rationalisations and justifications
from collapsing like the proverbial house of cards. If anyone didn't
previously know the definition of cognitive dissonance, well now
you've got your text book example in action.

His greatest admission of any worth in this sequence, mirroring the
earlier one with Castro occurs upon meeting up with one of the old
foe. He relates a conversation with the man who was the equivalent of
the foreign minister for the North Vietnamese whom he met in the late
80s. In conversation with the man McNamara admits that the guy said to
him the Americans were fools for thinking that the Vietnamese were
fighting on behalf of Chinese communist expansion. The main reason
being that they hated the Chinese and had been fighting them for a
thousand years or more. The only result they wanted was every foreign
power getting kicked out of town. I guess they got their wish.

"We were wrong", McNamara admits. Is it one of the first times anyone
that powerful has admitted something so damning in a context like this

That's why the film is so fascinating. A man who holds such
contradictory positions and seeks to help others, especially the
United States, to aid them with the wisdom he has garnered through
bitter experience as one of the Powers that Be, who accepts aspects of
what he's done in the past and clearly feels guilt for, yet denies
other actions seemingly arbitrarily. His post-Secretary life appears
to have been about making the world a better place and preventing wars
from happening through economic development. His work at the World
Bank possibly attests to his desire to make amends. Of course as has
been par for the course of his entire life critics point to his
actions at the World Bank as being just as destructive as anything
else as he's ever done to the other countries he had dealings with in
the past, but that's by the by. Atrocity, like beauty, is in the eye
of the beholder.

Paradoxically, he comes across as a decent, moral man. Who better can
assert the idea that history makes good men commit acts of 'evil' for
a greater good, when a man has lived that dictum so clearly over the
course of his entire life?

Errol Morris received an Oscar for best documentary for this film, and
whilst I can't say necessarily that it was the best documentary of
2003, he just as likely received it for the body of work he's been
responsible for over the course of his illustrious career. This doco
is as good if not better than anything else he's ever done. His
technique of using the Interrotron (a series of teleprompters) to have
his subjects looking straight down the barrel of the camera makes for
compelling delivery. The editing and the Phillip Glass music also
prevent the proceedings from getting too dull or dry, for it is
subject matter drier than the Sahara. I won't think any less of you,
if, being fooled into watching the doco at a cinema, any of you nod
off during the course of the extravaganza. Perhaps Morris could have
made the film livelier by splicing in shots of breasts or cocks every
now and again.

The relevance of the ideas in the film to the current global
environment is obvious, and appreciated. With the benefit of hindsight
and perspective Robert McNamara allows us to see the terrible
decisions that can be made by otherwise decent, rational people who
genuinely believe they're doing the right thing, but are oblivious to
the idea that the ends don't justify the means in any sane, moral
context.

8 jabbering probably smelly old men out of 10

--
"We were wrong" - Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Rating: