Robert McNamara is one of the most controversial characters in 20th century American history. Known as a “wiz kid” for his decisive mind and organizational brilliance, McNamara was part of some of the most pivotal events of American history, culminating in his presiding over the Vietnam War. History has not looked kindly on McNamara’s legacy, many placing blame for the debacle of the Vietnam War squarely on his shoulders. McNamara is now dead, but half a decade before his passing he agreed to provide interviews for the documentary film The Fog of War. I recently watched this film and was surprised to find it a troubling and perplexing piece, offering no easy answers about the life of McNamara or American foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century.
The film mostly consists of McNamara recounting his life experiences, usually over stock footage of the events that he is discussing. For structure, he goes through 11 lessons that he learned about foreign policy during his lifetime. All of this is tied together by a nice Philip Glass score. I started watching this film expecting to have my preconceived notions of Robert McNamara vindicated, and was surprised to find that my views were not necessarily shaken, but given a greater depth and complexity. It seems obvious to me that the film makers experienced a similar realization as they were working on this film. What started as an attempt to condemn a man by his own words turns into a mediation on the moral grayness of foreign policy in the 20th century.
To start things out, The Fog of War has McNamara talk about his part in World War II where he calculate the effetiveness of bomb raids and was in part responsible for the firebombing of Japan. It is creepy to see how McNamara seems to view war with a cold scientific outlook. When asked about whether or not he knew about the firebombing he does give a direct answer and just talks about the numbers from the combined bomb raids of Japan. To him, war is all about maximizing results. He seems so detached from the human suffering of war that all he can talk about is cold numbers with no feeling. When pressed about the firebombing he offers this chilling thought: “LeMay said that if we lost [World War II] that we would be prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. We were behaving as war criminals. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
This type of thought pervades the documentary, as well as McNamara’s weird attempts to absolve himself of the things he has done. He thinks that he is making an apologetic film, but when he starts actually talking about what he did, his attitude comes across as detached and almost monstrous in his lack of feeling.
Most of the film focuses around Vietnam and his actions during the crisis. We all know that McNamara played a huge roll in the war, but for most of the movie he tries to pawn off all of the responsibility to the President. He really looks at his role in history as just serving the Presidents and cannot bring himself to admit that he was wrong. He only sees himself as an agent of bigger forces than himself. McNamara is so thoroughly convinced that his mistakes were not his that it makes him oddly sympathetic. The film shows that McNamara was a man who wanted to do right things but never had the spine to stand up to the wrongs of his superiors or to place blame on himself. The truth of the matter is that McNamara was one of the two people in the American government who could have legitimately stopped the Vietnam war, but he did nothing, and worked to escalate it.
The Fog of War is a fascinating character study of a man that encapsulates all the shades of gray. One minute you are agreeing with what he is saying and the next you are horrified as he describes his logic. There are good things that he did (when president of the Ford company he insisted that all cars have seat belts) but also terrible things. McNamara represents the moral grayness of politics in the 20th century: Is one evil action justifiable if it stops a greater evil? This movie offers no easy answers and watching McNamara’s life memoirs is a confusing, disturbing and fascinating glimpse into the mind of this perplexingly vague man. To quote McNamara himself: “I am very proud of my accomplishments and I am very sad that in the process of my accomplishments I made errors.”