In 2001, 85-year-old Robert McNamara sat down for an interview for documentarian Errol Morris’ PBS series “First Person”. McNamara had served in the Army Air Force in WWII under Gen. Curtis LeMay. After the war he became one of Ford Motor Company’s Whiz Kids and he was briefly the president of the company before Pres. Kennedy tabbed him to be his Secretary of Defense in 1961. He continued into Johnson’s administration until 1968. As the civilian leader of the military he is famous for his attempt to fight war using statistical analysis. You could call his the Father of the Body Count. He believed that data could be used in making wartime decisions. The interview lasted 8 hours and then McNamara came back the next day and then a third time later. In total, 20 hours of interviews were used to make the movie “The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”. The theme of the movie was a discussion of the nature of modern warfare. The documentary was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary. The movie used archival footage, past interviews with McNamara, and parts of the 20 hours.
The movie opens with the advice that you should learn from your mistakes. And McNamara made a few. Here are the eleven lessons:
1. empathize with your enemy - ex. dealing with Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis
2. rationality will not save us - although in the Cuban Missile Crisis, all the leaders were rational, you must consider that humans can be fallible
3. there is something beyond one’s self - you have a responsibility to society
4. maximize efficiency - ex. the fire-bombing of Tokyo (which seems to contradict empathy for your enemy)
5. proportionality should be a guideline in war - he agrees the fire-bombings of Japanese cities was a war crime
6. get the data - in a statistical analysis of bombing in WWII, it was found that many American bombers were aborting out of fear, LeMay threatened to court-martial any pilot who aborted and the numbers went way down
7. belief and seeing are both often wrong - ex. the Gulf of Tonkin Incident
8. be prepared to reexamine your reasoning (especially if you are 85 and want to go to Heaven) - ex. Agent Orange (which he argues was used legally)
9. in order to do good, you must engage evil - to keep the Cold War cold, we had to deal with the Soviets
10. never say never
11. you can’t change human nature
The movie strikes one as an attempt to polish McNamara’s image. Although the doc does not get to the Vietnam War until the 7th lesson, the documentary is considered by many to be a mea culpa for that war. As you can see, it covers more ground and is actually not so much an “I f’d up” apology as an attempt by McNamara to play the role of expert on modern warfare. For someone who fouled up Vietnam so much, this is a bit of a stretch. And it takes a man with giant brass balls to pull it off. In fact, he does come off as an intelligent man who was at the seat of power for a series of crises and did his best to help two Presidents, like a good robot would. He is apparently truthful and he does admit to mistakes. However, Morris does not press him on some of the more controversial decisions. Like, why did you stay with LBJ when you believed that if Kennedy had lived, he would have gotten us out of Vietnam? McNamara clearly idolized JFK, but he was only too happy to serve the man who reversed Kennedy’s plan to get out. (That plan is based on some wishful thinking, but McNamara does believe it.) McNamara was full of the hubris that allowed him to believe he could make Johnson’s war successful based on his statistics. He has a huge ego. He probably had a dream of the war going down in the textbooks as “McNamara’s War”. He did leave (or was fired) when Johnson turned down his proposal for scaling down the war. Hey, when I left, there were only 25,000 names for the Wall. When Morris asks why he didn’t speak out against the war, he replies that he didn’t want to inflame the public! Does he feel guilty about his role in the war? He didn’t want to answer that question.
This movie might come as a disappointment to veterans of the war who want to watch a hatchet job on Mr. McNamara. It helps if you already have knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. The movie assumes you do. You won’t learn a lot about the war from this documentary. You may come out of the movie enraged at this man trying to play elder statesman teaching the next generation of leaders. But show some empathy for the man that knew the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on bogus facts and did nothing about it. Or don’t.
GRADE = B-