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.