With the war in Vietnam, the American public was given a firsthand glimpse of U.S. foreign policy in action. Despite all that has been written about the period, the divisiveness spawned by the war still reverberates throughout American culture and the desired catharsis still proves elusive. Although the decision to send combat troops to Vietnam involved a large cast of players, one man - Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara - has repeatedly been “credited” with plunging the U.S. into war. Vilified for decades as an arrogant warmonger, who escalated the conflict, critics would do well to pay heed to McNamara Axiom #7 - “belief and seeing are both often wrong.”
After reading “In Retrospect” – in which McNamara tried to explain how the U.S. stumbled into the debacle in Vietnam - documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”, “A Brief History of Time”) knew he wanted to talk to him. Morris finally approached McNamara five years later and found him to be quite receptive. Impressed by Morris’ level of preparation, the connection they enjoyed, and the polished treatment of the first interview McNamara agreed to further sessions.
Although in his 80’s McNamara is still quick witted and capable of recounting events with perfect lucidity, down to the minutia. He demonstrates remarkable candor, stating early in the film that had the Japanese been victorious he would likely have been indicted for his role in the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities (as an efficiency expert he suggested ways to improve the success rate of bomber missions).
McNamara’s revelations are often frightening – we learn that not only was the outcome of Cuban Missile Crisis pure dumb luck, but the world also came within a hairsbreadth of nuclear Armageddon on two other occasions. Ironically, the main lesson learned during the CMC - “empathize with your enemy” - would be totally lost on Vietnam. While not an apologist for the war, McNamara acknowledges that they made many mistakes, not the least of which was their fundamental failure to understand the nature of the conflict and their enemy. It is words spoken decades earlier however that provide us with the best insight into the man.
Morris uses recently declassified materials, to separate the man from the myth: tapes reveal that not only was McNamara opposed to the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, he actually went to great lengths to convince Kennedy to begin troop withdrawals. He was forced to backtrack when Johnson, who comes across as a xenophobic hawk ignorant of the situation, took office after Kennedy’s assassination. McNamara found it increasingly difficult to work with Johnson, especially when Johnson insisted on bombing North Vietnam. Unfortunately for McNamara, by the time he resigned as Secretary of Defence, he had been indelibly tainted by his association with the administration.
“The Fog of War” is much more than a simple talking head documentary, thanks to Morris’ skillful blending of the different elements of the film. The use of the Interrotron - a small TV screen with Morris’ image mounted above the camera lens – ensures that McNamara looks directly at the Teleprompter when he speaks and by extension establishes direct eye contact with the audience. Morris stops this from turing into a simple “Talking Head” documentary through the copious use of previously unseen archival footage to highlight elements of the story (the comparison of U.S. cities with those that were fire bombed in Japan is extremely effective). The film’s special effects are sparse, subtle, and instill a somber mood, enhanced by Phillip Glass’ haunting score which perfectly captures the tone of the film (Morris was quoted as saying “’…no one does “existential dread” as well as Philip Glass”). The most important ingredient however is McNamara himself.
McNamara has obviously spent considerable time contemplating the effects of his actions and readily admits to having made mistakes. He also continues to make them – it wasn’t until a meeting with his Vietnamese contemporaries three decades after the conflict that he finally grasped what the Vietcong were fighting for. He provides frank answers to every question save one – if he feels responsible for the war in Vietnam. He notes that anything he says would be torn apart by his critics and notes “I’d rather be damned if I don’t” .
Errol Morris’ deconstruction of the McNamara myth is a brilliant documentary that is equal parts enlightening and entertaining. While the film may not change viewer’s opinions, they will hopefully they will be left with a better understanding of the man and the events that shaped him. Anyone in a position of power would be well served by McNamara’s observances – his comment that a superpower should never apply economic or military might unilaterally appears downright prescient in light of the recent events in Iraq. Unfortunately McNamara axiom #11 still appears to hold sway “You can’t change human nature”.