“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” is an intelligent documentary directed by Errol Morris and based upon an interview with Robert McNamara, who as Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson was for many the face of the war in Vietnam. Long seen as an energetic technocrat, blamed for increasing the body count in the brutal conflict, McNamara has reappeared in the news following his book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” (1995).
The documentary features footage of iconic figures including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Curtis LeMay, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, as it marches its way from WWI –McNamara’s first memories—nearly to the present. Although filming started before 9/11, McNamara makes some prescient comments about our current engagements abroad.
The eleven lessons are:
1. Empathize with your enemy.
2. Rationality will not save us.
3. There’s something beyond one’s self.
4. Maximize efficiency.
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
6. Get the data.
7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.
9. In order to do good you may have to engage in evil.
10. Never say never.
11. You can’t change human nature.
In “Fog of War”, Morris has made a very strong documentary that stops short of excellence. His interview style –to place the subject in another room from him and appear to the subject on a television screen—is not entirely effective with McNamara who is clearly comfortable in front of and with cameras. McNamara’s true moments of reflection seem fueled by his own thoughts from the intervening decades and not by Morris’ questions which he interprets to fit his answers. When Morris shouts questions, McNamara often shrugs them off as if they were impertinent or irrelevant, mere distractions from the internal dialogue he has with his own ghosts. What becomes apparent is that McNamara cannot clear the fog of war from his own eyes, much less from ours.
For those seeking to better understand the reclusive octogenarian, this film –while riveting—does not go beyond the line McNamara already drew in his book, which similarly contains a tone of semi-reporting, semi-excuse, semi-apology, stopping short of simple answers. Morris has done an excellent job of weaving footage and recordings together, complemented by Philip Glass’s score which is a narration in itself. We see more clearly what the decision makers said about the situation in Vietnam but the glimpses are neither incisive enough to answer our questions nor broad enough for us to question our answers. Morris cannot do the impossible task that he has created for himself, which is to help us see clearly in a time of war, but he can –and does—succeed admirably in presenting a good interview with an interesting and haunted man.
Parents should know that this movie touches on mature themes related to politics, protests and war. Allusion is made to fire bombs, nuclear weapons, Agent Orange and the effect of these weapons on the targeted populations. Self-immolation in protest of Vietnam and the near immolation of a protester’s child is discussed.
This movie provides rich content for family discussion, starting with the major issues McNamara raises in the interview. Who is responsible for US involvement in an extraterritorial conflict? Under the US political structure, what might be the checks and balances to prevent or guide US involvement in a time of war? How do perceptions of the mentioned military engagements, including WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, Iraq, differ and why?
“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Families might wish to discuss this sentiment, expressed here by General Sherman in the context of the Civil War, and how McNamara uses it to describe WWII bombings. Is there a developed sense of ethical behavior during a time of war? What “rules” might there be? If you can’t change human nature, what can you do to prevent war or ameliorate conflicts?
As described in the film, Congress placed the decision to wage war on Vietnam with the Executive Office, which some people argue means that they abrogated their responsibility. Should one person, in this case the President, be responsible for the decision to go to war? If you were in McNamara’s place as a close advisor to a president considering going to war, what would you have done? McNamara describes disagreeing with President Johnson on many aspects of the conflict in Vietnam and eventually leaving the administration. If you disagreed with the President, how would you address the problem? What other solutions would you consider? Would you resign?
Morris stops the interviews with discussions of Vietnam, but McNamara in his next job was responsible for re-shaping the World Bank to focus on poverty. McNamara argued that addressing inequality could prevent the causes of war. Do you think that there are other ways to prevent war?
Families who like this documentary might enjoy seeing Morris’ earlier works, including The Thin Blue Line about an innocent man imprisoned for murder, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control which is a poetic reflection on the obsessions of four men, and Gates of Heaven, the documentary about pet cemeteries that launched his career.
For families who wish to see a much different documentary with insights into ethics during a time of war, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann is a fascinating look at the man in charge of implementing the Third Reich’s horrific Endlosung (“final solution”). Other political documentaries about the U.S. that might be of interest include Point of Order, a mesmerizing snapshot of the last days of Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings.