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.