For years now, Errol Morris has been turning out visually sophisticated, intellectually dexterous documentaries about life’s eccentrics. Those who not only march to the beat of a different drumming, but who also may not be using any form of percussion at all with which to keep time. With the FOG OF WAR, he turns his inquiring lens from the obscure likes of the mole rat aficionado, the putatively innocent death-row inmate, the designer of execution machines, to focus on former college professor, Ford automobile executive, and Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The most disquieting thing about this examination of power is that Morris may not have strayed far in his choice of subject matter. That those who hold power over us are just as susceptible to self-delusion, to inhabit a dream world of their own making that allows little room for any other world view.
Here is Robert McNamara, one of John Kennedy’s best and brightest, the prime examble of the intellectual elite, the man who knowingly took the United States into a war that he knew was not winnabl,e and whose excuse for lying about it at the time is that it was what the Presidents whom he served ordered him to do. Am I the only one to hear the echo of Nurenburg,s refrain, “I was just following orders?”
A student enamored of philosophy, logic and statistics, he graduated from Berkeley and Harvard into Harvard’s officer’s training program that dealt with the statistics of death, and from there to Ford Motors, where he came up with the first analysis of car crash fatalities. McNamara was good at his job and Morris uses a recurring motif of graphs, charts, and figures to underscore that after so many years of calculating the percentages of probable casualties, it was only the numbers that registered, not the human beings, which Morris juxtaposes over the numerals that they represented. They were just a blind spot in his worldview. When he was tapped to become Secretary of Defense by Kennedy, there was no other way for him to look at the Vietnam War.
McNamara’s words and, more tellingly, his demeanor, do little to disabuse us of this notion, nor of how deep-seated this numerical worldview is in his psyche. As he speaks of the Kennedy years being stressful for his family, causing, he opines, the ulcers that probably killed his wife and yet, there is the buoyant delivery, the big grin as he adds that they were also the best years of his life. So much for his helpmeet and better half. In fact, the only time he shows any sadness is when talking about the days after Kennedy was assassinated and he, having been asked by the widow to scout gravesites, describes the place he chose.
The film begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. What saved us from nuclear war, McNamara explains, is that we empathized with the Russians. That we all pulled back from that brink was dumb luck, but it was that empathy that allowed for it. He didn’t understand, he couldn’t empathize, with the Vietnamese as he had with the Russians. Even at a dinner meeting decades later amid much fanfare and press coverage, McNamara still misses the point about what the war was all about. Almost, as he puts it, coming to blows at the banquet with his former adversary. “Don’t you read history?”, he is asked, ”Don’t you know we’ve fought the Chinese for a thousand years. We were fighting for our own independence and would have fought to the last man.?” A scene from earlier in the film comes to mind. McNamara recalling his childhood competitiveness to be the top-ranking student in his elementary school class, a class made up of WASPS like himself, as he puts it, and then the other kids, the Chinese and the Jews. It’s a distinction made in passing, but one that seems to have stayed with him, coloring his decision-making and his ability to empathize. Another blind spot that he seems to have still not recognized.
The central point comes up when he discusses Curtis LeMay, the fire and brimstone general who firebombed Japan and when the Cold War broke out, found himself with nothing to do but lobby for a hot war where and whenever he could. Invading Cuba, for example during the Missile Crisis or proclaiming his intention of bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age if he could get the President to agree. McNamara recalls a conversation with LeMay in which the general opined that if the Allies had lost the war, he would have been tried and executed as a war criminal. This prompts a philosophical dissertation by McNamara about the morality of how war is waged. He never takes the next step, though, and ponders the morality of war as a whole, as in when it should be waged at all. Another blind spot and one that we should have seen coming. At the very start of his monologue, he makes a distinction between destroying a country and killing its people. The former is unforgivable, the latter, well, that’s another matter all together.
Through it all, Morris lets him talk, interjecting rarely and the only to steer McNamara’s monologue, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, with the evasions telling us as much as the responses might have. Morris real genius is that he knows how to listen, knows when to stop questioning and thereby let people reveal themselves more than they intended. All the exquisitely edited visual components fail to overshadow the subject himself, they are merely the delivery system for what is, in the end, a self-portrait taken unawares brought to vivid life. There is McNamara, still delivering his spiel with the same assured smoothness that we also see in the clips of his briefings on Vietnam delivered to a pre-Watergate press that lapped it up. He made his apologies for the lies years ago, and so the larger question that remains unanswered is why he subjects himself to Morris’ scrutiny. And perhaps it is the fact of the participation itself rather than any answer to that question that is revelatory.
As for the greater theme, what those who wield power do with it and why, that question is answered with a stunning clarity. And we should all be afraid. Very afraid.