The Fog of War: 10 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

“The course we’re on is totally lost.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is the focus of Errol Morris’s award winning, engaging documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The film’s up-close and personal approach to its subject offers an interesting and chilling look at America’s foreign policy during the years 1961-1968 when McNamara served as the Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson. The film also traces McNamara’s pre-Washington, WWII career as an officer in the Army Air Force’s Office of Statistical Control. Here he analyzed and improved the efficiency of U.S. bombing missions.

While ostensibly analyzing McNamara’s 11 Lessons of War, the film also examines the underlying moral questions surrounding war–is war justified? Is it avoidable? And–in hindsight–is it worth the cost?

McNamara frankly admits “any military commander … has made mistakes”, and on camera McNamara discusses three main points in American 20th Century foreign policy–the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of course, the Vietnam War. While McNamara was not involved in the decision to drop nuclear weapons, he states that this was unnecessary and “not proportional.” He discusses his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, claiming that he knew nothing at the time about America’s attempts to assassinate Castro. The Cuban Missile Crisis serves as a good example, however, of Lesson 1: “Empathize with your enemy.” McNamara argues that it took Tommy Thompson understanding Khrushchev to decide how to respond to the Soviets.

When it comes to Vietnam, however, McNamara is much less of an apologist and much more slippery. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Vietnam War as totally unnecessary, but McNamara argues that the Vietnam War was an intrinsic part of the Cold War. At the time, ‘saving’ Vietnam from the communists was an imperative, but now, of course, that just seems nonsensical. But ideology aside, chilling pivotal archival footage of conversations between McNamara and Kennedy–and later Johnson–reveal that these men knew full well that Vietnam was a hopeless war, and yet they all sent men as fodder to the war machine for years. McNamara had misgivings about the war very early on and privately stated his dire reservations while publicly describing it as a “battle to win the hearts and minds of the people.” These diametrically opposed opinions–private and public–illustrate the moral dissonance of those puppet masters who directed the Vietnam War “on tyranny and aggression.” No doubt if politicians were required to fight these wars, they’d create swift, diplomatic conclusions.

The interviewer is remarkably soft with McNamara, and when tough questions are asked, McNamara illustrates his inherent nature as a politician. Lesson 9: “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil” offers marvelous opportunities for the ethical examination of war situations. McNamara jocularly explains a rule he lives by: “never answer the question asked of you. Answer the question you wish you’d been asked.” McNamara illustrates his point by failing to address questions regarding the moral consequences of his actions, and even manages to speak of himself in the third person at a crucial moment. Still, in spite of McNamara’s evasiveness, the documentary offers a unique opportunity to interview one of the architects of the Vietnam War decades after the fact, and asks: “what were you thinking?” The viewer will draw conclusions from both those questions answered and those questions studiously avoided.

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