Errol Morris says that his fascination with Robert S. McNamara -- the subject of Morris' Oscar-nominated documentary, The Fog of War -- remains so great that he is continuing to interview the former Secretary of Defense. Morris shaped his feature from 20 hours of filmed conversations.
"A lot of interesting, important material didn't make the final cut," Morris says in a telephone interview. Now Morris hopes to write a book about McNamara's life. "Not a biography, but a study of themes about the limits of human rationality, about how history is shaped less by will and planning than by confusion and blunder."
Best known as the secretary of defense from 1961 to 1967, McNamara was widely vilified as the architect of America's disastrous military engagement in Vietnam. Early in the film, he claims to remember, at age 2 in 1918, Armistice Day, the end of the "war to end all wars." Morris overlays footage of Woodrow Wilson addressing cheering throngs, many wearing masks to protect themselves from that year's virulent flu epidemic. Morris sees the masks "as a chilling harbinger of all the wars to come," all the wars that World War I did not end after all -- particularly the wars in which McNamara would play such a central part. And he sees in McNamara's life sundry obvious lessons applicable to our current military policy in the Middle East.
Though The Fog of War covers McNamara's life from childhood to his resignation/firing as the defense secretary at age 51, most of the film focuses on three events: McNamara's WWII service as an aide to Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, McNamara's involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his role as advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson at pivotal moments early in the Vietnam War.
McNamara was a key member of the LeMay staff during the deadly firebombing raids over Japan in 1945. Data-cruncher that he was, McNamara assisted LeMay in determining how to create the maximum amount of damage per sortie. And they did damage that some of us never knew and few of us can comfortably face. One night in March of 1945, American bombers burned to death 100,000 civilians in Tokyo. And though that was the worst of it, that night was hardly the end of it. The firebombing eventually killed more than half of the residents (and in some places up to 90 percent) in 67 Japanese cities -- cities the size of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Cleveland. The firebombing was so effectively devastating that LeMay thought the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary. LeMay also told McNamara that were they to lose the war, he and his staff would be tried as war criminals. From this experience, McNamara has deduced the principle "proportionality should be a guideline in war."
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev, one saying that the Soviets would pull its nuclear weapons out of Cuba if Kennedy would promise not to invade Cuba, the other listing other more extensive demands. A former diplomat to the Soviet Union advised Kennedy to agree to the first and ignore the second. That's not exactly what Kennedy did, though McNamara says it is.
Nonetheless, there is obvious merit in the principle he extracts from this experience: "empathize with your enemy." He goes on to relate startling facts about our failed intelligence during the crisis. Kennedy and his advisors thought the missiles in Cuba had yet to be fitted with warheads. Thus, they seriously contemplated a massive air, sea and land assault to destroy the missiles before they could be armed. But they were wrong. The missiles were fully operational and capable of killing 90 million Americans. There was a rational argument for decisive military action, but had we attacked, human civilization might have been destroyed. "We lucked out," McNamara argues and announces his next principle: "rationality will not save us."
A popular notion in the 1960s was that McNamara was the cabinet hawk who urged first Kennedy and then Johnson ever deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. "McNamara's War" the press sometimes called the conflict. But McNamara claims that he saw the problems with military action in Vietnam from the very first stages of the war, advised Kennedy to begin withdrawing troops in 1963, and developed a plan that Kennedy approved to remove all American soldiers by 1965. When Morris asks point-blank who was responsible for Vietnam, McNamara finally concedes with obvious anguish that it was Johnson. McNamara's version of his role in Vietnam is hotly disputed by some who have seen this movie. And this despite the fact that Morris has discovered and includes a taped conversation in the Oval Office between McNamara and Kennedy on Oct. 2, 1963, and another between McNamara and Johnson on Feb. 25, 1964, that definitively seem to substantiate McNamara's account.
Asked about those who think he lets McNamara off easy on this point, Morris says that he has listened to all the tapes that are available and believes they show that McNamara is telling the truth. "I tried very hard to make sure that the film includes no factual errors," says Morris, who also directed such fascinating documentaries as The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time but earned his first Academy Award nomination for this film. "People have claimed McNamara exaggerated his World War II record, but the documents I examined bear him out." Morris adds with characteristic modesty, "I could be wrong, of course."
Some viewers of this film have objected to what they see as a sympathetic portrayal of a man who was involved in decisions that killed millions of people. About 3.4 million Vietnamese people died in a war McNamara supervised and now states we never had a chance of winning. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed. Yet McNamara did not resign to protest Johnson's decisions and never spoke against the war after he left office. And Morris, who protested against the war in the 1960s, hasn't changed his attitude about Vietnam "one whit. I thought it was appalling then," Morris says. "It remains appalling to me now."
So why the sympathetic portrait? "I don't at all think that McNamara was blameless," Morris says. "But I am moved by his struggle. He is unusual among political figures in his willingness to look back over his life and examine his actions. Though perhaps not loudly enough or without qualification, he is willing to admit having been wrong. Some will say his books and his appearance in my film are a strategy of whitewash. And I think there is an element of that. What human being wouldn't want to construe his life in the best possible way? But he dares to wonder if the world has to be the way it is. He dares wonder if we could ever learn to live without war."
I think it is in Errol Morris' nature to look for the best in people even as he endeavors to tell the truth about them. His devastating portrait of a Holocaust denier in 1999's Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is nonetheless relentlessly humane. He encourages us not to hate Leuchter but to feel sorry for his stupidity. Morris has far more sympathy for McNamara and obviously sees him as a man in search of redemption. But the film does not suggest that McNamara's journey is done or that it necessarily will be. Morris gives McNamara the opportunity to express sorrow and admit guilt, and he won't do it. McNamara may be making progress in his soul searching, but the picture makes clear that to a sad extent, he is still lost in the fog of war.
- Claire Folger
- Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara explains his role in the Vietnam War in Errol Morris' Oscar-nominated documentary, The Fog of War.