Fog of War
Some people are born for greatness. Some have it
thrust upon them. Some people just stumble into it. Looking back
over his life, Robert McNamara never seems to have planned or expected to
play a major role in the life and death of millions of people. He just
happened to be the person at the right place at the right time.
is not to underestimate McNamara's intelligence or worthiness for his place
Honestly, I'm not sure I could.
The truth is, I was just a very small child when McNamara was Secretary of
Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, overseeing such
vital moments of American history as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of
Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War. I wasn't even born when he was the
President of Ford Motor Company and created the seatbelt. My mother
was barely even born when he was a part of the military think tank that led
to the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, leading to over a
million civilian casualties.
Before seeing this film,
McNamara was just a name in a history textbook to me.
McNamara is an engaging storyteller.
At 85, his mind is still like a steel trap, to the point that he can routinely
rattle off prices and values of things over 60 years ago. (This skill
may have contributed to his Vietnam era reputation as an unfeeling war
computer.) He openly acknowledges that he made many mistakes in his
tenures in positions of power.
His explanations seemed well thought out and
intelligent, imbued with equal parts pride and regret. He is mostly
very candid with documentary maker Morris, (he even acknowledges that
General Curtis LeMay said truthfully that if the US had lost in World War
II, they would be tried as war criminals for the Japanese firebombings), though he occasionally still has
points that he evades. It is still incendiary stuff, at least two
people in the theater that I saw the film in vocally rebuffed his
last couple of years have been a high water period for documentary
filmmaking. Great films like
Capturing the Friedmans, Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration, My
Stone Reader have raised the art form to unheard of levels.
So it is about time that arguably the greatest documentary maker of the past
twenty years weighs in with his latest thought-provoking true life drama.
Errol Morris has made such brilliant and diverse films as The Thin Blue
Line, Gates of Heaven and A Brief History of Time. The Fog of
War is one of his best. Morris is a master filmmaker, making a
nearly two hour movie that is essentially one talking head (Morris is
periodically heard egging McNamara on with pertinent questions) and
historical footage fascinating and strangely beautiful.
The problem, or perhaps the blessing of
McNamara, was that he was a statistician and businessman, not a military
man. He was determined to use probabilities and logic in warfare,
which thrives on anarchy. This leads to many visually arresting scenes
where news footage of death and war are intercut with probability studies
that led to the attacks. Finally, when McNamara's belief that Vietnam
was a war that could not be won (seven years before the US finally left)
clashed with President Lyndon Johnson's beliefs, McNamara's public service
came to a swift end.
The most important thing in this film is that a man whose name was once
synonymous with war has with hindsight come to realize that while war is
necessary evil, sometimes it forces a government to do reprehensible things
in order to attain good. He also realizes that governments almost
never put themselves in their enemy's shoes, and without some empathy for
his opponent, he can never hope to understand their motivations.
McNamara says that if our own allies do not agree with our policies, then we
may be winning the battle, but we're losing the war. In the long run, a government official has to
weigh the bad that they do along with the good. In this time of
disappearing weapons of mass destruction and the government co-opting civil
rights in the name of patriotism, these insights are more trenchant than
ever. Someone should tie George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Osama Bin
Laden down and force them to watch this film.
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Posted: February 14, 2004.