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Thinking Through The Fog of War

18 Mar 2008

While looking for Fahrenheit 9/11 among the piles of DVDs at our friendly neighborhood pirated video stall, I came across the documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. I knew of McNamara no more than he was a top US government official involved in the Vietnam War, while I’ve heard of filmmaker Errol Morris’ predilection for documenting the bizarre, which included pet cemeteries, a man whose job is to set up and repair execution equipment in prisons, people who mutilate themselves for insurance money, and murderers. I bought it, not quite knowing what to expect of the Morris-McNamara combination and at the same time looking foreward to see how a filmmaker like Morris would deal with an overtly political subject as McNamara. Had he found anything quirky about the former US Secretary of Defense?

Lessons from the Life of Robert Strange McNamara

The film it turned out is a long interview of McNamara at age 85 smoothly interspersed with archival footages of battle, graphics made for the film and recorded conversations between McNamara and former US President John Kennedy and McNamara and former US President Lyndon Johnson. As he talks McNamara keeps the assured and methodical manner of his younger self, which had been described in various newspaper, magazine, and TV reports as “arrogant,” “egotistical,” and an “IBM machine with legs.” He’s recounting major events in his career such as his work in the Statistical Control unit of the Air Force, where he analyzed target statisctics and recommended ways of making bombing more efficient, how it was serving under the brutal commander LeMay who firebombed multiple Japanese cities before dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and how a clash between the US and the Soviet Union was prevented during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He tells of how he understands those events now, reflecting and looking back, and admits that he had made mistakes, “errors of judgment,” but he is far from apologetic.

What impressed upon me was the film’s resistance to spew cheese, as some documentarists are wont to do in advancing their cause. It refuses to bank on pathos, if it is to be a tirade against US aggression. For instance, Morris does not show footages of soldiers or civilians dying amidst battle until the part discussing the Vietnam War, against which he is said to have rallied against. But The Fog of War also baffled me. I was used documentaries that clearly stated their views, and couldn’t tell offhand what the film was trying to point out. It neither portrays McNamara as a vicious war criminal nor someone who is now trying to absolve himself through The Fog of War and working for many years in an institution widely publicized as humanitarian, the World Bank. The lessons, which formed the backbone of the whole documentary, seemed to me conflicting and on the whole aloof: “Empathize with your enemy,” “Maximize efficiency,” Belief and seeing are both often wrong,” “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” It seemed to me as equivocal as McNamara who says he doesn’t fault Truman for dropping the atomic bomb. As noted by Morris, he also had refused to speak against the Vietnam War after leaving the Johnson administration while believing that the US should pull out its troops. He refrains from answering when Morris asked whether or not he felt guilty about his participation in the Vietnam War. Is Morris merely playing a postmodern trick while riding on the marketability today of things about war, with the US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan still raw in the minds of people?

Strange Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara

There are clear spots amidst the seeming fog, though. McNamara for example points out among the US government’s numerous “errors of judgement” the its view on the conflict in Vietnam. He says the US viewed Vietnam as an element of the Cold War, whose takeover by Communists would trigger the domino effect of having the whole of Southeast Asia adopting the socialist political and economic system. This view clashed with that of the people of Vietnam who saw the war as a fight for independence from colonial domination and from US intervention in a civil war. He says he realized this when he returned to Vietnam many years after the war and talked to a former North Vietnam official. On the firebombing and the dropping of the atomic bomb in World War II, McNamara asks “What makes war immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

Historians are not so fond of counterfactuals, or what-could-have-beens, McNamara says, and the interview is fraught with hints of just those – what might have and what might not have happened if leaders such as he had judged rightly to prevent mistakes. But what did happen had already wrought their effects. We could not retract, and I now think that McNamara’s apology or confession could not after all do much, even if the officials instumental in waging the US’ wars at present would watch the film with old McNamara admitting and asking forgiveness for the unjust destruction his country is bringing on millions of lives.

McNamara is right, there is something beyond oneself. Wars are beyond the morality, rationality, and “human fallibility” of leaders, but I think they are better understood with each country’s economic interests in mind, with what makes it profitable for one to wage and win war always in perspective. This is not to absolve the executors but to place their responsibility and culpability in context.

War is indeed cruelty but one not without reason. I agree with McNamara that it is so complex, but not as muddied that we can thus resign or prevent ourselves from making sense of it and from doing something about it. People surely cannot change the past. Its examination and understanding from hingdsight, as what McNamara does in the film, however is seeing the forks along the road, the alternatives, points where people could intervene.

For me the film’s lessons are not really lessons in the sense that they are forced upon you. It is rather like a conversation and an invitation to go ahead and cleave the fog of war. # Eleyn Beronio

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara | dir. Errol Morris | 107 min | video

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