The Fog of War (2003): Re-examining Our Reasons

Happy elections day in Canada! In introduction to this highly political movie, I should probably preface my comments by stating that if you vehemently disagree with my stance, it’s probably because I am a filthy commie. Well, maybe I don’t lean that far, but I am certainly what would be classified as a socialist; I have zero problem with paying more in taxes so that we have less poverty and crime, and greater equity in quality of life. I even advocate for taxing the wealthy more (collective gasp!). I greatly agree with the idea that everyone can live a life of comfort if we give up the idea of obscene wealth, and I recognize the role luck plays in our position in society and success. So I’m an uber-lefty (although please understand, I don’t associate with any political party; as far as I’m concerned, politicians are the problem with government, and I mean politicians on all sides). As you can imagine, I tend to be anti-war as well. My father once told me, “War is disaster. The only time it is justified is when not going to war would be an even bigger disaster.” Now here’s where people can split hairs. Some would argue the latest Iraq War was justified to avoid disaster; in my opinion, Iraq was merely one of many dictatorships in the region (and not even the greatest threat to us Westerners), and one that committed the majority of its human rights atrocities when it was allied with the West. However, the land was rich, and the despot no longer a friend of ours. To me, any attempt to justify the Iraq War as diverting disaster is spin-doctoring in fine form. Then again, I’m a filthy socialist. May as well be a commie.

I can think of two wars that meet my father’s criteria for averting disaster: The American Civil War and World War II. Both are instances for which I truly believe that NOT going to war would have permitted appalling crimes against humanity to continue on an enormous scale. On the flip side, topping the list of the most useless and wasteful wars in history is Vietnam. Rather than avert disaster, this was one military action that perpetuated it. So then, how would this bleeding heart take to a film in which Robert S. McNamara expounds upon his military career, the man once blamed solely for the Vietnam action? Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) awaits…

Synopsis: The former U.S. Secretary of Defense comments on the various lessons he has learned regarding warfare and security throughout his military and political career.

It is rare to see someone so openly willing to explore themselves and their decisions publicly, especially when such decisions have led to infamy or had devastating consequences. Watching this film reminded me of an exhibit I saw at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia. In the exhibit, a Swedish photographer who once sympathizes with the Khmer Rouge army looked back on the images he had taken on a goodwill mission to Cambodia during the reign of the Pol Pot. At the time, he believed the Khmer Rouge was creating an ideal communist system, and many of the pictures he took were used in Khmer Rouge propaganda to further their agenda. In the exhibit, for each picture he detailed his thoughts at the time he took the photo, as well as what he now believed was going on given the information he knows about the regime. His stance in the exhibit seemed simultaneously unapologetic and regretful; it was as if he was doing his best with the information he had at the time, but was genuinely upset that the information was used the way it was. I got the sense that McNamara feels similarly regarding his role in the American military machine.

McNamara speaks with a refreshing frankness about his military involvement. He does not try to rationalize away or justify his responsibility for any of the actions he has taken. At one point, he acknowledges that he and the government behaved as war criminals in the assault on Japan during WWII. Yet it appears he was also unfairly maligned by the American people and media. Interestingly enough, although it became known as “McNamara’s War,” all evidence in the film indicates that McNamara was a vocal opponent to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the beginning. There are tapes of him repeatedly pleading for an exit strategy, as he and Kennedy had originally planned before Kennedy’s assassination. His official public stance was one supportive of Johnson’s actions and decisions, but when we get behind closed doors… In 1964, following Johnson’s inauguration, a taped recording reveals Johnson chastising McNamara for his and Kennedy’s plan to withdraw American forces from Vietnam. It was not the last time McNamara would try to get the president to consider alternatives, and eventually their dissent over this issue would lead to McNamara leaving (being fired from?) the administration.

McNamara makes an excellent point early on: I cannot now place myself in the mindset of the Cold War. I cannot imagine making decisions that I believed could impact the future safety of all people. While to me, the domino theory was never anything more than an untested hypothesis, this is a luxury I am afforded with glorious hindsight. The impending threat of nuclear attack was neutralized before I became aware such things happened at all (chasing butterflies, playing tag, etc.), and I have no knowledge of what living with such doom can do to a person. So perhaps his gentle treatment of, and forgiving attitude toward, Johnson can be understood. On some points, I disagree with McNamara; however, this has made me question my arrogance. Do I truly believe that I, with absolutely no direct experience in war or military activity, understand these issues better than McNamara, who lived the Cold War for decades? Are my beliefs realistic or idealistic?

My absolute favourite thing about such exposés is the insight they provide the public into the workings of government. While I respected Kennedy’s stance on many issues, most obviously civil rights, I have always thought he was martyred by the American media/people as being a better president than he was. One of my chief complaints of his policy was his involvement in the Vietnam War, which to me represented how similar his foreign policy was to those who came before/after. It satisfied me to learn that he had intended a full exit from Vietnam by 1965 prior to his death, but also raised doubts as to what I think I know about any administration. Where did all this gray come from? What happened to simple black and white?

McNamara took it away. He stole my ability to think on this issue in black and white. Because while he holds some beliefs and opinions that I do not, he speaks with such insight and wisdom on what he has learned throughout his life that he convinces you of the need to consider the other side. He pleads for proportionality in war, citing the US firebombing of Japanese cities prior to Hiroshima as evidence of the extremely one-sided nature of US combat; it is at this point that he refers to his actions as criminal. He explains how empathizing with one’s enemy can avert total destruction: it was Tommy Thompson’s personal understanding of Nikita Khrushchev that allowed the Cuban Missile Crisis to be resolved peacefully. McNamara understands that “belief and seeing are both often wrong,” a lesson taught to him by the Tonkin Gulf situation. He acknowledges that he and the other members of the administration saw only what they wanted to following the torpedo “attack”; “we were wrong.” Although this is one moment where I wondered how much McNamara’s dissenting voice kept him out of the loop on efforts to progress the Vietnam War, I have to concede that my theory is based simply on my distrust of the American government regarding foreign policy, and his account is based on his personal experience (but I am still suspicious as to the deliberateness of that misinformation).

Despite my continued distrust of most governmental bodies and almost all military men, I found McNamara to be an articulate man of integrity. He speaks most fondly of his time at the Ford Corporation, one of the few times in his life when his skills were being used to protect and save lives without causing destruction. He manages to be self-reflective and critical; he concurrently accepts responsibility and helps you understand the reasoning for the decisions he’s made. He’s not a perfect man, but he’s willing to admit that, and it goes a long way toward sympathizing himself to the audience.

The saddest element to the movie may be that the mentality that got America embroiled in Vietnam is present today, even in progressive administrations. In the 90s, McNamara met with a high-ranking North Vietnamese official to discuss the different ways they viewed the Vietnam conflict. McNamara, certain in his belief that he understood the situation completely, was stunned when the Vietnamese official stated that the Vietnamese would never have conceded the war; in their mind, they were fighting for their freedom. The administration at the time was positive the Vietnamese were fighting on the side of the commies – little did they understand that the Vietnamese had been fighting China’s oppression for centuries prior to French colonization (after which, they were oppressed by the French). The Vietnam War, to the Vietnamese people, was a conflict of independence. It wasn’t until Vietnam democratically elected Ho Chi Minh, a communist, and America stepped in to interfere that the Vietnamese reacted to what they perceived as further oppression. I recall this from my own visits to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is a hero to the Vietnamese people because, as they see it, he is responsible for providing the country with independence for the first time in centuries – maybe even millennia. The American government had no real knowledge of the history of the area, and it led to a gross underestimation and misreading of their foe. This firm belief in their knowledge, no matter how limited, has led to many of the current American conflicts in the Middle East. Last week, Jon Stewart interviewed Gigi Ibrahim, an Egyptian activist at the forefront of the democratic revolution. According to her, the root of the difficulty the U.S. has in negotiating peace (and war) in that region of the world is due to cultural and historical ignorance; we Westerners continue to believe we know best, brushing aside the power of millennia of cultural tradition and influence. Of course, this is just her opinion. However, I have now heard such a theory from an 87-year-old American Secretary of Defense, and an Egyptian-American activist in her 20s. When two very different people from very different backgrounds agree on something, it may hold some weight.

Overall, a fascinating movie, mostly if you have some interest in politics, history, or the military. Ideally all three. I’m not sure where I entirely stand on Mr. McNamara, but whatever else, I respect him and admire his ability to look at himself so honestly, and not flinch. Whatever decisions he made in the moment, he demonstrates great insight and has received significant wisdom from his experiences. Let’s hope future military commanders and politicians can benefit from his trials.

Best Scene: McNamara’s discussion of the lack of a learning period with nuclear weapons.

Key Quote: What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political, or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there! None of our allies supported us; not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.

Runner up: What makes it immoral if you lose but not immoral if you win?

Fun Fact: In filming the interviews, Morris used a device he called the Iterrotron, which permits the participant to see Morris on a small monitor in the camera. The result is that McNamara sustains eye contact with the audience throughout.

Until the next,


~ by K. Harker on May 2, 2011.

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