I just managed to see this haunting documentary recently, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2003. The Fog of War traces the life of one of the most controversial figures in modern American history: Robert McNamara, considered the architect of the Vietnam War.
At 85 years old he sits down to tell his story (almost confession) to acclaimed documentary film maker Errol Morris. Retracing history he teaches the audience 11 lessons from his life, especially through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Ã¢??Empathize with your enemyÃ¢?? McNamara says, as lesson one; Ã¢??In order to do good, you may have to engage in evilÃ¢??, he says in lesson nine.
At times Morris leads him in a certain direction but for the most part he doesn’t have to as it feels McNamara is truly taking the opportunity to tell his story. He retells his role in planning a bombing on Tokyo that burned 100,000 innocent civilian lives, saying he was merely “part of a mechanism” that in a sense recommended it. Going through a list of 67 cities that were for the most part destroyed by heavy bombardment killing so many people before the world even heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the screen Morris has an assortment of pictures showing half destroyed cities with their names and McNamaraÃ¢??s voice comparing their sizes to the likes of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
While he tends to move back and forth through history, from one event to another and often backtracking to a certain year, he does so with such astounding detail. It is amazing to see what it was really like behind the scenes of history and one of the people who was making it. Things that even history books wonÃ¢??t tell you. Holding up two almost touching fingers to the camera lens, McNamara indicates just how close the world came to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis; holding up three fingers he indicates just how many times. Years later McNamara meets Castro who tells him just how he (Castro) was prepared to accept the destruction of Cuba if it meant launching nuclear missiles at U.S. cities.
In between Morris shows a brilliant array of images, pictures, and even telephone conversations between McNamara and Kennedy and later Johnson. As the Vietnam War rages on McNamara slowly realises this was a mistake and that the U.S. should pull out, forming a position that contrasted with JohnsonÃ¢??s; essentially leading to the formersÃ¢?? resignation.
In the same way the fiction of Forest Gump put American culture of the 60’s into a historical context, The Fog of War seeks to do the same thing with some of the major events which have resonated throughout our modern history. For the decisions the worldÃ¢??s only superpower takes have a tendency to cause a ripple effect throughout the whole world. McNamara admits fault at times and at other times he blames himself for a particular incident of which truly feels like an egotistical moment. In truth, McNamara was really just a piece in a tumbling maze of dominos and as Tolstoy would put it, a king who was historyÃ¢??s slave.
Morris filmed the McNamaraÃ¢??s scenes using Interrotron that essentially allowed both of them to talk eye to eye while looking at the lens, giving the eerie effect of McNamara talking directly to an audience and never breaking eye contact.
He is in part attempting to confess his mistakes and failures but justifying his actions as the only options allowed him in the moment. In essence he is using the clichÃƒÂ© of vision being 20/20 in hindsight.
We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What “the fog of war” means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.
It is a brilliant film that I highly recommend whether you are a history buff such as myself or simply want to be entertained with a dose of reality that will remind you of 11 lessons unlearned; a history repeating itself today in Iraq with Donald Rumsfeld as the architect instead of McNamara.
Bottom Line: 5/5
A good companion reading is David Halberstam’s classic The Best and the Brightest. I quote the Wikipedia entry on Halberstam:
“Synthesizing material from dozens of books and many dozens of interviews, Halberstam focused on the odd paradox that those who crafted the U.S. war effort in Vietnam were some of the most intelligent, well-connected and self-confident men in America — ‘the best and the brightest’ — and yet those same men were unable to imagine and promote any but a bloody and disastrous course in the Vietnam War.”