Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Documentary by notorious filmmaker Errol Morris, also known for The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. It consists entirely of "talking head" interviews of Mr. MacNamara spliced together with military stock footage. And it is as compelling an emotional portrait of 20th century strife as any epic recreation one could name - Schindler's List, Apocalypse Now, JFK. If we could get high school teachers to show this film in history class, it would count a long way toward this supposed preparing of students for the "real world".

The film begins by covering the Cuban Missile Crisis, an episode symbolizing the blind luck which military success is often dependent on. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay strongly urges President Kennedy to order a series of air strikes against suspected Russian nuclear launch sites in Cuba. McNamara, Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, warns against this move, terrified of escalating the level of conflict. Kennedy chooses to send U.S. ships to blockade the island, and after a two-week standoff, the Russians turned around and went home.

McNamara then reveals that not until thirty years later did he discover, from a personal conversation with Fidel Castro, that Cuba already possessed nuclear weapons at these locations which certainly would have been launched at Florida if Kennedy had ordered the strike.

So, in a way, McNamara could be considered the man whose instincts saved civilization as we know it.

The film then loops back to McNamara's service under LeMay in the Pacific theater of World War II. Then an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, McNamara helped organize LeMay's B-29 Bomber operations over Japan. It was LeMay's idea to take a plane designed for precision bombing at 20,000 feet and have it drop incendiary explosives from the perilously low altitude of 5,000 feet. Dozens of Japanese cities were attacked simultaneously, and over 500,000 Japanese civilians died. (This was long before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

So, in a way, McNamara could be considered an architect of needless genocide. He freely admits the only reason he was never tried for war crimes is that he was on the winning side. Somehow, I don't ever expect to hear that statement from Henry Kissinger, or Donald Rumsfeld.

All of this is a prelude to the main body of the film: an exploration of McNamara's role in the Vietnam war. McNamara believes that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, the U.S. would have committed far fewer troops, and ultimately pulled out much sooner. It seems -- as recorded conversations support -- much of his time was spent debating President Johnson over the merits of sending in so many ground troops with no clear objective. McNamara also believes that no amount of troops could have ever "won" the conflict. Once again, this stems from a decades-later talk with a former enemy, who convinced him that America's fundamental concept of the war differed wildly from North Vietnam's.

Even though I have included here many (though, I assure you, nowhere near all) of this film's stunning revelations, even if you've read McNamara's book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam", which covers much of the same ground, I still urge you to see this film. McNamara is an enthralling storyteller. At age 85 (the interview was shot in 2002) he doesn't look a day over 70, and he has the energy and clear-mindedness of a man far younger than that. He's got a fantastic vocabulary and a curious accent that must be a meld of California and New England - I don't know quite where in America people say "ackruhsee" and "Warshnun". Most tellingly, he has an unflinching gaze that stays trained right on you, unafraid of your judgement. At times he defers with statements like "I was part of a mechanism..." or "It's the president's responsibility", but I must believe that this man has spent most of his life weighing countless departed souls against his own. The question is, how would you or I have performed in his position? Would any of us be proud of our actions?

The film doesn't demonize and it doesn't glorify. The score by Philip Glass is typical of his sound. It's non-melodic and repetitive, but it's very effective. It doesn't tell you how to feel. This human's story is too complex for that. I got the distinct impression from the Kennedy Administration footage that serving as President of the World Bank (of which I often have a decidedly unkind view) has made MacNamara into a different man, the way none of us at age 17 look the same as we do at age 35. The world-famous McNamara of the 60's, with his blocky build, slick-backed hair, and squint behind glasses, bears an eerie resemblance to the aforementioned Mr. Rumsfeld.

Obviously, as has been pointed out in many other places, this film carries profound relevance to America's invasion and occupation of Iraq. Suffice it to say that two of McNamara's lessons, "Empathize with your enemy" and "Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning", are not being considered by the Bush Administration.

One of the film's most haunting moments is during a short interlude, the period between wars in which McNamara takes an executive position at the Ford Motor Company. He is appalled at the number of deaths caused by automobile accidents, and sets about researching and testing to make his product safer. (Ralph Nader's work to publicly indict car companies is not mentioned.) It is stunning, a karmic flip-flop, to see that this same brilliant mind could devote his efficiency expertise to saving lives. And it is heartbreaking to hear of his frustration when, after he succeeded in getting seatbelts installed on every model of Ford car, he discovered that no one would wear them. Another ugly paradox that deserves to be remembered.

In his 2003 film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris conducts an extended interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, touching upon his role in the second world war, the Vietnam war, and numerous other areas of American defence policy - including the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film is most notable for its compelling combination of primary source documents (such as video footage and audio recordings) with the considered commentary of a man intimately involved in the events depicted and examined, after having had many years to consider his reasoning and decisions. The film has an undeniably confessionary tone, with some of the most astonishing lines delivered by McNamara as he looks directly into the camera. McNamara’s candour, Morris’ cinematographic style, and the emotions evoked through dramatic vehicles - like the comparison of the American bombing of Japan to what an equivalent bombing would have meant in reverse - combine to make the experience of the film a personally introspective one.

Fog of War is clearly a film with contemporary, as well as historical, importance. Accepting the Oscar for best documentary in 2004, Errol Morris stressed how the lessons of McNamara’s life can be applied to the questions that dominate American foreign policy today. When McNamara says: “If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning,” the present day importance is clear. The film exists within the intriguing genre of the memoir that seems to burn with present applicability. Certainly, that sense is highlighted by Errol Morris’ editing decisions, as well as his public comments about the film: most notably at the 2004 Academy Awards, where it took the best documentary prize.

The minimalist, piano and strings-heavy soundtrack of Philip Glass, often counter-pointing historical footage, conveys a sense of missed opportunities. After the debacle of Vietnam, the image of dominos leaping back to their standing positions as the film runs in reverse is a poignant one. McNamara’s message – and it is undeniably his voice and approach that dominate the film – is one of the kind of regret focused on avoiding future errors. Human fallibility is a theme approached many times: in the examination of the supposed attacks on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin that provided at least the pretext for major escalation in Vietnam, for example, McNamara explains that “belief and seeing are both often wrong.” In retrospect, and as presented in the film, the Vietnam War was predicated on the massive and enormously costly misunderstanding of the nature of the struggle, from the perspective of the enemy. The empathy that McNamara saw as vital to the non-violent resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was, in this case, tragically absent. McNamara puts the failure of empathy down to a lack of understanding between the North Vietnamese and American leadership: a point that seems especially relevant at a time when the United States finds itself confronted with enemies that operate according to very different structures and beliefs and within a history perceived very differently.

While he acknowledges his culpability in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians during the second world war, McNamara is less clear about his own overall estimation of his moral stance. Speaking of his conduct in the war, he admits that he and Curtis LeMay were “behaving as war criminals,” yet he tells his story so as to stress acts that he sees as personally redeeming. Examples of those include the introduction of seatbelts at Ford while he was President of the company, as well as the decision to make sure all of the troops protecting the Pentagon from Vietnam protestors be armed with rifles that were not loaded. The fact that McNamara chooses to relate these things, and Morris chooses to include and even highlight them, gives some idea of how human beings are able to make sense of their own lives in retrospect, balancing errors against the successes they found whatever good opinion they hold of themselves upon.

It is terrifying to see, from as close to the inside as can be managed, the decision making procedures followed in times of unexpected crisis, particularly in the nuclear age. When McNamara says that “the indefinite combination of nuclear weapons and human fallibility will destroy nations,” he adds an authoritative flourish to a doctrine more broadly elucidated by many others. Indeed, few of his ideas are really new and he makes no new information known that was previously secret. The value of this interview footage and associated materials lies in the places McNamara and Morris choose to focus their attention, how they choose to make the argument, and how broadly different phenomena are tied together. The film, like all important historical work, is a dialogue with the period of time it examines, seeking to understand it firstly on its own terms, with the benefit of hindsight, and secondly with reference to the contemporary world.

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