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    The Fog of War

    Clouded vision

    Errol Morris's "The Fog of War" gives Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara a chance to explain how he went wrong, in a fascinating and important personal exploration that turns out more complex than the former defense secretary could have expected.


    (Originally reviewed at the New York Film Festival, October 2003.)

    There is one moment — in this film as in history — when you can clearly see Robert McNamara's mind change. McNamara, defense secretary under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and one of the architects of the Vietnam War, sat for a series of interviews with the groundbreaking documentarian Errol Morris to discuss his role in history from World War II forward. Widely considered a brilliant technocrat whose growing doubts and guilt about Vietnam made him an emotional wreck by the time he left the administration, McNamara is more lucid and energetic in discussing his life than one might have expected. He acquits himself ably and engagingly in these interviews — until a certain point when you can see him falter.

    Directed by: Errol Morris.
    Featuring: Robert McNamara.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam (212) 875-5600 Sat. Oct. 11, 6:30 pm Sun. Oct. 12, 2:00 pm

    New York Film Festival 2003
  • 21 Grams
  • The Barbarian Invasions
  • Crimson Gold
  • Dogville
  • Elephant

  • The Flower of Evil
  • The Fog of War
  • Mystic River
  • Raja
  • S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

  • Festival site
  • In late 1965, a devout Quaker named Norman Morrison burned himself to death outside McNamara's office, tossing his own baby daughter to safety just before setting the fire. This was a turning point — an experience that didn't fit into the war expert's carefully drawn plans — and it seems to have shaken him considerably. When he speaks in the film, it is not hard to see how this event still haunts him.

    One key observation you'll get from reading about the war is that the U.S. was never winning it. Although our generals constantly claimed progress — and McNamara himself was a purveyor of statistical analyses that seemed to show we could not possibly be losing — the figures were irrelevant to the facts on the ground. This film includes black-and-white archival footage of Secretary McNamara confidently talking up the war in the early days, but then the change sets in. In later color footage, we see him step off a plane after a fact-finding trip and tell the press, "The military operations are showing very substantial progress" — and it's obvious from his expression that he no longer believes a word of this. We can surmise that he's a brilliant man but a very poor liar.

    What becomes clear is that McNamara — often confident and convincing — is not an entirely reliable narrator of his own story. He has carefully crafted a view of events that allows him to criticize his own past but still live with himself.  

    The film prepares the ground for the subject of Vietnam by spending its first half on McNamara's previous experience. He played a role in bombing strategy during World War II, developing numerical methods to improve the effectiveness of the bombing of Japan. The faith in numbers becomes a theme in the film, as does the realization that General Curtis LeMay shared with him that if the U.S. had lost World War II they might well have been considered war criminals for what amounted to a mass slaughter in Japan. LeMay (the model for George C. Scott's gung-ho character in "Dr. Strangelove") is commonly seen, in retrospect, as an almost insanely fanatical advocate of bombing in the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. McNamara's mental relationship with his World War II-era comrade-in-arms is a fascinating one.

    What becomes clear in these interviews is that McNamara — often confident and convincing — is not an entirely reliable narrator of his own story. He has carefully crafted a view of events that allows him to criticize his own past but still live with himself. After all, he reassures himself several times, he was no LeMay.

    "Morrison was one of those" who disagreed with LeMay's style of warfare, he says to the camera now, "and I think I was too."

    This is a shocking statement, which would have drawn howls from war opponents if he had made it in the 1960s. Obviously, Norman Morrison made the ultimate statement of protest against McNamara himself — so it's unthinkable that he would now see himself, the war's mastermind, as in league with the man who burned himself to death to oppose it.

    How could he make such a claim? Because he has convinced himself that the basic distinction is between sane people such as himself and soulless killers such as LeMay. Placing himself in this mental space lets him acknowledge the colossal mistakes that got 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese killed, but put aside his ultimate moral responsibility.

    "I don't think my thinking was changing," he says in response to one of Morris's questions. "We were in the Cold War and this was a Cold War activity." It sounds like a pat answer that he's been telling himself for four decades, designed to avoid questions about right and wrong.

    The film ends with McNamara declining to answer some of the more probing questions because they'll just get him in trouble with the public. Morris says these were a small sample of the many questions he refused to answer. The reaction is understandable — when he published his 1995 book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," acknowledging the mistaken conduct of the war, it was met less with praise for its honesty than with fury among veterans and the survivors of the dead. Shellshocked by that experience, he is reluctant to set off any more angry firestorms. Yet, by the end, this documentary portrait has taken us from the supercompetent McNamara to the dissembler whose face betrays the emptiness of his rationalizations to the evader of uncomfortable truths. He remains a surprisingly likeable figure, consistently intelligent and reflective, and his honest analysis of his life's mistakes — to a point — is instructive.

      As long as we fail to recognize the nationalist anger that we are provoking in Iraq, we will let ourselves in for the same lasting anguish that we experienced because of our leaders' miscalculations 30 years ago.
    An equally long review could be written about Errol Morris's innovative documentary techniques. Suffice it to say, this would be a lesser movie without him. Using his patented "Interrotron" (whose name ambiguously suggests both "interrogation" and "terror"), he offers his subject what seems to be a bullhorn but turns out to be a microscope. The film does not try to create a complete history by holding up McNamara's statements to objective verification via outside sources. As with many of Morris's works, it reflects a fascination with exceptional individuals and their obsessions. The 85-year-old war leader's recollections should prove valuable to future historians, but what holds your attention is the intriguing personal dimension, captured in Morris's distinctive style.

    The film never comes out and makes such a connection, but it comes at a moment when the morality and mistakes of past wars are of urgent interest today. One could draw numerous insights from this film into our nation's current misadventures in Iraq, but the most salient has to be the first of the film's eleven "lessons": "Empathize with your enemy."

    The United States's most fundamental mistake in Vietnam — which McNamara analyzes accurately — was to misunderstand the ambitions of the Vietnamese people. To American cold warriors, Vietnam looked like a victim of outside communist subversion. It seemed natural that the people there would welcome our version of freedom, but we misunderstood the degree to which communism was a vehicle for Vietnamese nationalism and we had not grappled with the relatively new phenomenon of decolonization. Our efforts to stop Vietnam's national aspirations and impose our own despotic dictators only hurt our standing among the people we claimed we were saving.

    Similarly, our leaders have foolishly assumed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. and British troops as liberators because of what we see as our essential goodness. We fail to empathize with the Iraqis — to recognize that our troops' occupation of their country looks different to an Iraqi than it does to us. We fail to see our own ambiguous history in world affairs and the causes we have given for Arab resentment. As long as we continue to blame Iraqi turmoil on sabotage by a few Saddam Hussein loyalists and not recognize the nationalist anger that we are provoking, we will let ourselves in for the same lasting anguish that we experienced because of our leaders' miscalculations 40 years ago.

    OCTOBER 13, 2003

    Reader comments on The Fog of War:

  • Arlington Recollection?   from Garrrett, Dec 23, 2003
  • The Fog of War   from Catherine, Dec 28, 2003
  • Re: The Fog of War   from Ian Carter, Dec 30, 2003
  • Poor Title   from Mike Goodman, Jan 9, 2004
  • Same Movie??   from Josh, Jan 30, 2004
  • Re: Same Movie??   from monique soroka, Mar 4, 2004
  • how sad you are   from rusty, Mar 1, 2004
  • Re: how sad you are   from Jay, Mar 18, 2004
  • Good Review   from Felipe, Mar 1, 2004
  • ford motor boss speed up to Gov. Office   from luis umpierrez talavera, Mar 7, 2005

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