May 12, 2004 -- The Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” is a disturbing recounting of some glaring human rights abuses and policy blunders by the U.S. going back 60 years. Some of these blunders, including the Vietnam war, bear an uncanny resemblence to the same kinds of blunders being made by the Bush Administration in the war in Iraq.
The documentary, by acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris (“A Brief History of Time,” and “The Thin Blue Line”), is essentially a long interview with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The movie follows up on statements made by McNamara in various books he has written, including “Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” and “Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy” and “Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age.” The movie is spiced up with a lot of historical footage from newscasts, newsreels, still photos and audio tapes. Morris uses a special camera setup called an Interrotron (TM) which allows the person being interviewed to see the interviewer's face on a screen directly in front of the camera's lens. This allows for more of a “first person” type of filmed interview with the person speaking directly to the camera and to the interviewer at the same time. The visual setup works well. Morris tilts the camera from time to time for dramatic effect.
Morris' voice can be occasionally heard asking McNamara questions during the course of the film. Morris' high, thin voice seems to be coming from another room sometimes. It is disconcerting. Morris, by the way, made the most entertaining comment at the Academy Awards this year, when he thanked the Academy voters for “finally recognizing my work.” Due to very strange rules, his films, long recognized as among the best documentary works around, had not met the Academy's extremely narrow definition of documentary films (Michael Moore's films, like “Roger and Me,” were excluded for the same reason). Morris and Moore were finally honored, in part, due to lobbying from critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, among many others, to change the Academy rules defining documentary films.
McNamara is one of those fascinating, enigmatic characters, who, like Nixon, defies simple analysis. Extremely intelligent, hard working, ambitious and straight-laced by today's standards, he was also tough and ruthless in war. Seeing this movie is like finding some artifact from the past. McNamara has outlived most of his contemporaries, giving him the last word on some of the early history, such as the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in World War II, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. McNamara, who served under controversial General Curtis E. LeMay at the time, agreed with LeMay's assessment that American commanders probably would have been tried as war criminals for the fire bombings, had the U.S. lost the war. Some 100,000 Japanese civilians died in a single night when Tokyo was firebombed. The bombings did have the desired effect of reducing Japanese war production and greatly reducing Japanese defenses against air attack.
Later, as U.S. Secretary of Defense, McNamara was involved in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Both were extreme crises. The world came “this close” to full-scale nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara said, holding his fingers about half an inch apart. He said war was avoided because of dumb luck as much as anything else. It was yet another example, with Vietnam and Iraq, of bad intelligence. McNamara said the U.S. did not know that there were already plenty of nuclear warheads in Cuba. He said the U.S. knew there were some missiles there, but didn't know the warheads were already there as well. McNamara said LeMay (then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was ready to attack Cuba, but President Kennedy opted for for a naval blockade, which ultimately helped defuse the crisis. This particular crisis is covered pretty well in the film Thirteen Days.
The long nightmare of Vietnam started small, with a force of a few thousand American military advisers. President Kennedy had decided to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam. In fact, the phased withdrawal of troops was already under way when Kennedy was assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson felt strongly that the troops should not be pulled out of Vietnam. An audio tape of a conversation between McNamara and President Johnson clearly indicates Johnson's hawkish view of Vietnam and his belief in the “Domino theory,” that if Vietnam fell to communist forces, the rest of Southeast Asia would go communist as well. In the audio tapes, Johnson repeatedly interrupts McNamara and dominates the conversation. McNamara argues in vain, favoring the pullout of troops, but Johnson is having none of that. Later, the events leading up to the fateful Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing presidential war powers in Vietnam are examined in the film. One of the supposed attacks aginst U.S. Naval ships which precipitated the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may have been a false report. It may have been simply a misinterpretation of data, according to the film.
The movie argues that the escalation of the Vietnam War by the U.S. was a result of U.S. politicians misunderstanding the true nature of the conflict. It was primarily a civil war, not a war of communism versus democracy. In particular, McNamara said, the U.S. deeply misunderstood the relationship between the governments of North Vietnam and China. The two had been enemies for years, but the U.S. saw them as allies. As time went by, McNamara and Johnson disagreed more and more about Vietnam. Finally, McNamara was fired by Johnson. He went on to head the World Bank. At the time McNamara took the job of Secretary of Defense in 1960, the job only paid $25,000 per year. At the time, he was the highest paid executive in the world as president of Ford Motor Company. A wunderkind, he was the youngest president at Ford ever, and the first without the Ford surname.
McNamara comes across as a strong-willed person who usually distances himself from emotion. At times during the interview he becomes quite emotional, however. There are things that still cause him anguish. He nearly cries at one point in the interview as he seems haunted by ghosts of the past. McNamara is very careful to avoid blaming himself or others for some of the major policy decisions made during his long career. The lessons from McNamara's history lesson are clearly applicable to the situation that America finds itself in Iraq. It seems to be another quagmire like Vietnam. The troop buildup is already under way. One lesson that seems painfully obvious now is, don't start a war based on that most famous of oxymorons, “military intelligence,” it will often lead you astray. There is no doubt about it, McNamara and thousands of others paid a high price for these lessons. They are well worth learning. It is a pity more people haven't learned them. This film rates an A. It should be required viewing for Bush and Rumsfeld.
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