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Robert McNamara.

The Fog of Robert McNamara

Errol Morris' new documentary, 'The Fog of War,' gets lost in the mist of memory cast by Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara

By Geoffrey Dunn

FOR THE PAST quarter century, Errol Morris has been one of America's most intriguing, innovative and, well, quite frankly, quirky documentary filmmakers. He is to nonfiction cinema what David Lynch is to fiction film and Diane Arbus is to documentary photography. With his offbeat character studies, unconventional camera angles and haunting musical scores by Philip Glass, Morris has forged one of the more unique and irreverent voices in American cinema, documentary or otherwise.

His collected oeuvre--beginning with his iconoclastic look at pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven (1978), to his spellbinding murder thriller, The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his unforgettable Mr. Death (1999), a chilling profile of a gas chamber engineer and Holocaust denier--has forced Americans to plunge beneath the veneer of postmodern consumerism and confront their internal demons.

While The Thin Blue Line directly resulted in the overturning of a first-degree murder conviction and, in and of itself, became a cultural cause célèbre, Morris' new film, The Fog of War, takes the filmmaker into decidedly new and, what is for him, uncharted territory--a subject as large as the history of human conflict in the 20th century and the life of one of the era's most controversial and reviled figures, Robert McNamara.

In his previous works, Morris had the luxury of introducing his audiences to stories and subjects mostly unknown to them, and as such, the films were marvelously revelatory and widely celebrated.

For those of us in our mid-40s and older, however, Robert McNamara needs no introduction. His image is indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.

As the secretary of defense under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, McNamara was a larger-than-life figure, one of the so-called "best and the brightest" of the New Frontier. With his dark, slicked-backed hair and wire-rim glasses, McNamara was one of the most recognizable figures on the nightly news for virtually all of the tumultuous '60s.

The antiwar movement in the United States, in which Morris says he participated as a student at the University of Wisconsin, thoroughly despised McNamara, his public arrogance and condescension, his seemingly emotional indifference to the horrors of Vietnam and the American assault he crafted and oversaw there. He was a numbers cruncher, an accountant with an army, dispassionate, interminably full of himself. Mac the Knife. Ice seemed to run through his veins.

In his monumental history of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam wrote of McNamara:

He was intelligent, forceful, courageous, decent, everything, in fact, but wise. ...In the critical middle years [of the Vietnam War] he attached his name and reputation to the possibility and hopes for victory, caught himself more deeply in the tar baby of Vietnam, and limited himself more greatly in his future actions. It is not a particularly happy chapter in his life; he did not serve himself nor the country well; he was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.

That is heavy baggage for any film to carry, and The Fog of War, subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, is burdened by that inescapable historical gravity.

Although constructed around only a pair of three-hour, sit-down interviews that Morris conducted with McNamara in 2001, the film, which is richly interspersed with haunting archival footage and rare, unheard audio tapes, makes for truly riveting, if troubling, cinema. The 85-year-old McNamara holds an audience in ways that cardboard Hollywood stars one-third his age never could.

The Fog of War opens with a classic McNamarism. As the octogenarian is getting seated for another interview session, he checks in with Morris about sound levels, then declares: "Now I remember exactly the sentence I left off on, I remember how it started. You can fix it up some way. I don't want to go back and introduce the sentence, because I know exactly what I wanted to say."

It is the McNamara of old. Didactic, always in control, asserting his intelligence and the perfect command of memory. The changes are subtle. He is clearly in the autumn of his years, slightly frailer, grayed, his hair thinned, a touch vulnerable, certainly more reflective, but he is nonetheless vital, engaged, articulate and, perhaps now, even wise. At least wiser. What's more, he's charming, almost likable.

During the course of the film, McNamara, something of an American Zelig, recounts various episodes of his life dating back to the end of World War I up until the present, a period that covers the second world war, his years at the Ford Motor Company and the postwar revitalization of the auto industry, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, most centrally, the Vietnam War.

He breaks down when he recalls the assassination of President Kennedy. At another point, he acknowledges that he and General Curtis LeMay, under whom he served during the World War II firebombings of Tokyo, which left 100,000 Japanese civilians dead in a single night, could be viewed as "war criminals."

He breaks down again when he recalls the impacts of the Vietnam War on his family--his wife and three children were opposed to the war--and he goes so far as to acknowledge that the traumas associated with his tenure as secretary may have "ultimately" even killed his wife. It is a painful and poignant moment, but McNamara feels compelled, even when stricken with grief, to footnote that moment with the disclosure that they "were some of the best years of our life" and that "all members from my family benefited" from his days in Washington.

From these interviews, it is Morris (not McNamara, it should be pointed out) who distills the 11 lessons of the film's subtitle.

Some of the lessons are more fully rendered than others. The first--"Empathize with your enemy"--is drawn from McNamara's experience during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In what is a somewhat distorted and self-serving rendition of events, McNamara explains with great enthusiasm that the ability of former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson to identify with the personal psychology of then-Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev ultimately prevented the Kennedy administration from crossing the brink of nuclear war.

Much has been made of Lesson No. 9--"Never apply military force unilaterally"--and its relevance to the current war in Iraq. While the application of this lesson certainly cannot be lost on current world events, Morris has gone to great lengths to point out that this comment had nothing to do with Iraq or 9/11; he doesn't want to be viewed as "pandering." And McNamara has refused to speak out against the assault on Iraq--much as he refused to speak out against the Vietnam War 35 years ago.

Other of the film's lessons are more ambiguous, even banal ("Never say never" or "Get the data"), and their application uncertain, even contradictory. Are these life lessons for us all, or only applicable to foreign policy? On this, The Fog of War is vague.

Morris is not blind to this ambiguity. The filmmaker acknowledges that the lessons he drew from his interview with McNamara "are somewhat more pessimistic and ironic than his lessons. I mean, they all turn back on themselves, if you like. And the 11th lesson ['You can't change human nature'] even suggests the possibility that the previous 10 are meaningless."

One of McNamara's dictums that Morris does not enumerate is: "Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wished had been asked of you."

This would seem to have been McNamara's mantra during Vietnam, and one can't help thinking during the film that it remains so to this day. He is slippery to the end.

A Ford in His Past

Robert Strange McNamara (that is indeed his middle name), now 87, still vital, is a product of the Bay Area. Born in San Francisco in 1916 (his first childhood memory, as recalled in the film, is of people on top of streetcars celebrating at the end of World War I), he was raised in a middle-class Oakland neighborhood and graduated from Piedmont High School during the height of the Great Depression.

His father was a sales manager for a San Francisco shoe firm and could not afford to send his bright son to Stanford, so McNamara went to Berkeley instead. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, went off to Harvard Business School, where he excelled, then came back to San Francisco and worked for Price Waterhouse, during which time he married an old college friend from Berkeley, Margaret Craig.

But the East Coast beckoned. He had made such an impression at Harvard that the business school offered him a position teaching accounting, and he became the youngest assistant professor in the school's history. He and his young family were happy at Harvard. He loved the intellectual challenges, the community of academics, the social and cultural milieu.

Then World War II changed the arc of his life. McNamara's statistical abilities were so impressive that he was brought into the Army Air Force as a captain and served as a program analyst for the war's burgeoning air campaign. He moved up quickly in the ranks and participated, in his terms, in the "mechanism" that recommended the firebombing of Japanese cities.

After the war, McNamara wanted to return to Harvard, but both he and his wife became sick with polio, and his assistant professor's salary would not cover their medical bills. He and a handful of other young Air Force "whiz kids," as they were dubbed, went off to the Ford Motor Company with plans on changing the auto industry.

The puritanistic, albeit somewhat liberal, McNamara was not a perfect fit for Detroit (he actually lived in the more academic Ann Arbor, instead). He hated waste and ostentatious consumption, and the car he developed at Ford, the Falcon, reflected his twin commitments to economy and safety.

Although somewhat restless and uncomfortable at Ford, McNamara's career was in constant ascendance. In 1960, at the age of 44, he was named president of the company, the first nonfamily member at Ford to assume the post. He was one of the highest-paid business executives in the world.

His presidency at Ford was short-lived. McNamara's reputation had made a significant impact on those advising the young, newly elected president of the United States, John Kennedy, and McNamara was summoned to Washington to serve as the nation's secretary of defense. He agreed, on the condition that he could name his entire senior staff, and so he moved to Washington, at considerable sacrifice to his family.

He had little idea how great that sacrifice would be.

Mea Culpability

Errol Morris, also of solid middle-class stock and now in his late 50s, says that he began to consider making a film about the former defense secretary after first reading McNamara's Vietnam memoir, In Retrospect, which was published in 1995 to considerable fanfare and no small amount of controversy.

In a 40-minute phone conversation I had with him last week, Morris, a former private investigator who now makes a living--and supports his filmmaking habit--by producing and directing television commercials, talked about his inspiration for Fog.

"There was the book and of course the phenomenon of the book," he noted. "When the book came out it was a bestseller. It was reviewed, and beyond the reviews, there were many editorials, articles, commentaries; and very quickly, the book came to be described as McNamara's 'apology'--his mea culpa. And having read the book, the book seemed to me very different in character. It wasn't an apology. It was a tortured examination of his past. That was far more interesting."

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McNamara churned out a second book, Argument Without End (1999), and then another, Wilson's Ghost, in 2001. It was during his book tour for Ghost that Morris first met with McNamara, in May of 2001--five months, as Morris is wont to point out, before 9/11--ostensibly in the context of promoting that book, but, as Morris notes, "The thing became something quite different."

Morris said that McNamara had second thoughts about doing the interview. "He had called me a couple of days before coming up, telling me ostensibly that he was going to cancel the interview, and he went on at some length and then at the end said, 'but I agreed to come up, so I will.' And he--I mean this is very, very characteristic of McNamara in general--he limited the amount of time and his commitment and, of course, that got extended."

During our conversation, Morris was polite, patient and forthright and, in an echo of his subject, allowed it to go nearly three-times longer than had been scheduled.

But one could sense that Morris was also stung and perturbed by recent criticisms of the film, particularly those launched by Fred Kaplan at MSN Slate and Eric Alterman in The Nation. He told me that he had just composed lengthy responses to both.

Kaplan's piece, called "The Evasions of Robert McNamara," challenges McNamara's accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Tonkin Gulf incident two years later. Alterman's article, titled "The Century of the 'Son of a Bitch,'" characterizes McNamara as "both a pathological liar and a comically pathetic braggart," his remarks in the film riddled with "legalistic rationalizations and whitewashing of history." He, too, cites problems with McNamara's version of the missile crisis and Vietnam.

"People are so convinced that they know the history of this man," says Morris in response to the Kaplan and Alterman criticisms, "that they can't even admit of the possibility that there may be evidence to the contrary of what they believe--in some cases, recent evidence--recent in the sense that it's become available recently, and that the story of Vietnam becomes a far sadder story. I think that people in general like to figure out who's to blame, as if you can pinpoint one person who's responsible for it all, you're going to be in really great shape."

That may be true, but the facts remain, to my mind at least, that McNamara's renditions of the missile crisis and Tonkin Gulf incident in Fog are distorted and lack proper historical context to the point of rendering them duplicitous.

Missing Voices

Part of the problem is that Morris couldn't force words into McNamara's mouth and had limited time with his subject. But the larger part of the problem--and this was a structural decision made by Morris--is that there is no countervoice in the film, no sharpening stone, if you will, to rasp against McNamara's blade.

I found myself wanting to hear the voice of a Daniel Ellsberg, who worked under McNamara at Defense and who later leaked The Pentagon Papers, which, incidentally, were commissioned by McNamara (a fact inexplicably left out of the film), or a Neil Sheehan or a David Halberstam, both brilliant journalists who covered McNamara for much of the war and who have spent the ensuing years writing about it.

Such voices are never heard in The Fog of War. So in certain respects, McNamara was given a free ride. Morris had no cinematic mechanism at his disposal to counter McNamara's version of events.

There are two other major problems I had with the film, both involving choices made by Morris. In April of 1995, after the publication of In Retrospect, McNamara was invited to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for a symposium on his book. During the questioning period, a Vietnam vet named John Hurley stepped up to the podium and addressed McNamara:

Hurley: My question for you, sir, is that at the end of 1965, 1,425 American troops were dead, 1,425. 58,191 died before it was over. My friend, my commander Burt Bunting, died in Vietnam. Allen Perot never saw Needham, Massachusetts, again. Sunny Davis didn't come home. They were torn to shreds, they were ripped apart. You ripped the soul out of the family of 58,191 families in this country, sir. And you remained silent. You said nothing. You let 30 years pass.

McNamara: So, now your question ...

Hurley: My question is, sir, why did Burt Bunting die when you knew the war was a mistake ... Why did you remain silent while another 57,000 U.S. troops and 4 million Vietnamese died? Why?

McNamara: You're going to have to read the book to get the answer. There's not time ...

Hurley: Sir ...

McNamara: Wait a minute! [yelling angrily] Shut up! I will. Now let me answer. You had your time; let me have mine ...

Shut up! It was a chilling and unforgettable moment. I asked Morris if he had seen the footage of this encounter. He acknowledged that he had.

He chose not to use it.

I would have begun the film with that confrontation and unwound the complexities of Robert Strange McNamara from there. The dark and tortured depths of McNamara's psyche were revealed once again that day at Harvard--not during the war, but long after, during a time when McNamara was supposedly in a mood for reflection. Telling a Vietnam vet to shut up, read the book, at a symposium about the war takes, well, a certain hubris, a certain insensitivity, that this nation still needs to confront.

It is not confronted in The Fog of War.

The other significant issue I have with Fog results from Morris' choice of "b-roll," or cover footage, for his section on the American bombing raids in North Vietnam, the infamous Rolling Thunder campaign ordered by Johnson, with McNamara's approval, in 1965.

We see countless shots from the perspective of American warplanes, but the only time we see any of the Vietnamese victims is during a short, almost indistinguishable series of quickly edited black-and-white photos near the end of the film.

I asked Morris about this decision. He indicated that while he had footage on the impacts of the bombing from the perspective of the Vietnamese, "the movie, you know, in some sense, is from [McNamara's] perspective, and oddly enough he does not talk--he talks about the terrible tragedy for the Vietnamese people, but he doesn't quite talk about it the same way as he talks about the firebombing [of Tokyo]. ... I decided not to use it. I decided to use those still photographs instead."

This editing decision, which renders the bombing raids decidedly abstract and emotionally distant, would seem to fly in the face of two of the McNamara/Morris lessons in the film--"Empathize with your enemy" and another about "proportionality" being a guideline in war.

By not seeing the impacts of the bombing from the perspective of the enemy--as we do in the 1975 Academy Award-winning documentary on the war, Hearts and Minds--we never fully empathize with the victims of the American bombing assault that left more than a million Vietnamese dead. There is no sense of visual proportionality.

Here, Morris had the opportunity to provide a counterbalance to McNamara's technospeak, to his failure to engage some of the larger human truths about the war, but he chose otherwise. He allowed McNamara to not only claim control of his audio track, but inexplicably, his visuals as well.

What is lost, given the widespread American audience that will see The Fog of War, is the opportunity for Americans to empathize profoundly and compassionately with the victims of their country's genocidal war. This is a cinematic tragedy of grand proportions.

Confronting Ghosts

At the end of the film, Morris constructs an "epilogue" with an audio interview conducted with McNamara much later than his original two sessions. Lacking an adequate denouement for the interviews conducted in 2001, McNamara pressed his subject further:

Morris: After you left the Johnson administration, why didn't you speak against the Vietnam War?

McNamara: I'm not gonna say more than I have. ... A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch.

Morris: Do you feel in any way responsible for the war? Do you feel guilty?

McNamara: I don't want to go any further with this. It just opens up more controversy.

Morris: Is there a feeling that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't? No matter what you say?

McNamara: Yeah, that's right ... and I'd rather be damned if I don't.

It's a disturbing, somewhat unsatisfying ending to the film.

Morris acknowledged the problem. "Is it a perfect movie?" he asked rhetorically. "No. Are there things that are omitted that should be in it? Yes."

Morris told me that he continues to engage and discuss matters with McNamara on a regular basis. "I like him," he said.

On the day of our conversation, he informed me that he had just spoken with McNamara and that McNamara did not like the epilogue either.

"He said something," Morris allowed, "I've heard this so recently, I haven't said anything about this to anyone but yourself, ... and I think it's a very powerful thing. He said to me that he's not the chief architect of the war. It's just simply wrong, but he can be faulted for not struggling enough with Johnson to stop it. And so he does fault himself."

"For whatever reason," Morris also stated, "I'm more interested in understanding him than condemning him. I don't feel any differently about the war than I did 40 years ago. I still think it's appalling. What I'm interested in is how McNamara sees himself in that history, against bits and pieces of evidence that I've strewn through the movie, whether it's memos or voice recordings."

That is, indeed, a noble gesture on Morris' part--one not always reciprocated by his subject--and The Fog of War certainly takes us toward a closer understanding of a very complex man.

Robert McNamara, unfortunately, in his inability to fully engage the ghosts of his past, remains terminally lost in his own personal fog of war.


Award-winning writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn teaches a course on film and the Vietnam War at UC-Santa Cruz. His latest film, 'Calypso Dreams,' opens next month in Los Angeles.


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (PG-13), a documentary by Errol Morris, opens Friday at Camera 3 and Century 25 in San Jose and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.


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From the January 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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