The Fog of War

July 13, 2004

Errol Morris's The Fog of War

Last winter, the documentary film-maker Errol Morris made a splash with his movie The Fog of War. That film presented viewers with 11 lessons on politics from the life of Robert McNamara, America's Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense; most of the movie is made up of footage from Morris's many interviews with McNamara. I missed the chance to see The Fog of War while it was still in theaters, but I bought it on DVD earlier this summer and finally had the chance to watch the film from start to finish last night. I'm still not sure exactly what I think.

My main concerns about The Fog of War have to do with an irony at the very center of the film. Morris tells us the story of a man who thought he could revolutionize the Pentagon by making it more rational, more efficient, and better-run; he believed that rationality would lead to straightforward solutions to the country's problems, but ended up embroiling the nation in the most complicated, divisive, and unsuccessful war in its history. That's a fascinating story, and it could have been told in many different ways. Morris, however, has chosen an unusual format for his movie: under his guidance, a man who learned that life wasn't as simple as he thought has presented viewers with a series of 11 simple lessons for the future.

At its best, The Fog of War offers its viewers a fascinating look into the mind of its subject--and provides us with intriguing details on McNamara's life and career. Before Morris's film came out, for example, I had no idea that McNamara had helped plan the firebombing of Tokyo when he worked for the air force under Curtis LeMay; McNamara admits to Morris that if Japan had won the war, he'd have been tried as a war criminal. Similarly, it was fascinating to hear about McNamara's career at the Ford Motor Company: McNamara explains how the company was transformed, after World War II, from a family business whose top executives were poorly educated and badly trained into one of America's premier corporations, and discusses the way the company added new safety features (like the seatbelt) under his leadership.

McNamara seems amazingly sharp for his age (85), and comes across as a charismatic, confident, and likeable figure. His grasp of detail is amazing: he remembers that tuition at Berkeley in the 1930s was $52 a year, that the delivery cost for his first child was $100, and that his annual salary at Harvard was $4000. At the same time, McNamara is extremely proud of his accomplishments, and is quick to point out that he was the "youngest assistant professor at Harvard" and the "first president of [Ford]... other than a member of the Ford family"; he even remembers that his first-grade teacher arranged her students' desks based on their performances on her tests--and almost always gave him the first seat. In other words, two of the most prominent characteristics of McNamara's personality--his charisma and his self-confidence --are on vivid display in The Fog of War.

The Fog of War, then, is fascinating as a character study, but there's something about the movie that seems a little too pat and simplistic. In nearly every major scene, Morris emphasizes the ways that McNamara sought to bring rationality and efficiency to the forefront, often through the use of statistics. McNamara recruited a group of the "best and the brightest" to his World War II air force department through the use of punch cards and computers, and then used statistics in a systematic analysis of U.S. bombing raids; he used similar techniques to recruit a talented leadership team at Ford and to add new safety features to Ford cars. Moreover, about twenty minutes into the movie, Morris shows a film clip from the Kennedy years, in which a reporter tells McNamara that he has a reputation for arrogance--for showing up on Capitol Hill, ignoring the experiences of the country's leaders, and offering them "simple little lessons." The reporter notes that one congressman calls him "Mr. 'I Have All the Answers' McNamara." McNamara didn't have all the answers, of course, and the unstated lesson of the movie is that his arrogance and belief in rationality helped lead to Vietnam. He offers the main lesson of the movie near The Fog of War's conclusion:

There's a wonderful phrase, the fog of war. What "the fog of war" means is that 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... It isn't that we're not rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.

It's fascinating, in other words, to see that one of McNamara's 11 lessons is that "Rationality will not save us"--a conclusion that McNamara himself might have found shocking four decades ago. I'm a little uneasy with this lesson, however. The problem with McNamara wasn't that he believed in rationality: it was that he thought that a rational approach to problems would lead to simple, straightforward, and obvious answers. It's true that rationality couldn't save us in the Cuban Missile Crisis--as McNamara points out, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and their advisers were all rational men, and the world was still nearly destroyed--but I think a better lesson from Vietnam would be that "the world is sometimes far more complicated than we realize."

In one sense, I'd even argue that the makers of The Fog of War should have paid more attention to this revised lesson; there are times when the movie's view of causality seems a little too simple and straightforward. Another of the movie's implicit arguments is that if John F. Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, America would never have been embroiled in Vietnam, for example. The film never says this outright (though I believe that McNamara has made this argument before), but its logic implicitly makes that very point. JFK's assassination appears dramatically at the movie's midpoint; Lyndon Johnson appears as one of the movie's chief villains; McNamara portrays himself as consistently skeptical about America's chances for success in Indochina.

I'm afraid that I don't know a lot about the history of America's involvement in Vietnam, so readers should take my analysis here with a grain of salt. My sense, though, is that McNamara was a little less skeptical of the war than the movie suggests. The Fog of War plays clips from audio tapes in which McNamara expresses doubts about the war (and in which LBJ says that the administration can't discuss withdrawal publicly because it would send the wrong signal to the world); my memory is that a representative sample of McNamara recordings would include clips in which McNamara is skeptical and clips in which he's gung-ho about the conflict. (I also wonder a little about McNamara's recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which didn't sound quite right to me.) We don't really get a clear sense of how the escalation happened or why, and we're left with a strong sense that Johnson was responsible for the war and that Kennedy (and McNamara) would have done things differently.

Is this a fair assessment? Most of the proponents of this view, I think, suffer from an overly romanticized vision of the Kennedy administration, but it's possible to make a convincing case that things would have gone differently if Kennedy hadn't been shot. My own view is that Vietnam would have been a foreign policy mess whoever had been president, and that there were important institutional forces encouraging the U.S. to become more involved; even so, the Vietnam War wasn't destined to become the national disaster we remember so vividly today. My problem with The Fog of War isn't that it suggests that Lyndon Johnson was primarily responsible for the war, however. (McNamara admits to sharing responsibility for the war on camera.) My problem is that it addresses these questions in an extremely un-analytical way.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with the movie. The Fog of War is fascinating when it provides us with nice historical factoids about McNamara's career. It's extremely powerful when McNamara discusses what he did wrong with his career; McNamara verges on tears when he discusses his role in the firebombing of Tokyo and his responsibility for the Vietnam War, a sight that was moving to see. You can even argue that McNamara's historically arguable portrayal of his own role is historically important: it's a compelling picture of how historical figures confront the consequences of their actions. (I just wish we'd been given more background about how much of what McNamara said was true...)

Unfortunately, however, Morris acts as if he's offering us profound insights into how history is made--even while the movie itself discourages us from thinking about what's happening. The movie's score, by Philip Glass, is evocative and almost mesmerizing, but it's used in an odd and indiscriminate way: Glass always emphasizes the same themes and moods, whether Morris is showing us ominous footage of Cold War soldiers or amusing clips from 1950s Ford advertisements. Moreover, the movie's visuals look neat but seem heavy-handed. One scene shows a series of dominoes falling across a map, while McNamara discusses Vietnam and Glass's score plays ominously in the background; another scene flashes statistics on the Japanese war dead in front of us, telling us what percentage of the residents of different cities were killed in American air raids. If anything, I'd argue that these images encourage us to sit back and soak in what McNamara has to say, not to confront, analyze, or think about the significance of his message. Then again, the message of the movie--expressed in McNamara's 11 lessons--often seems a little trite. We're told that "proportionality should be a guideline in war," but wouldn't the McNamara of 1965 have felt that he was adhering to this principle?

I'd definitely recommend The Fog of War, and I think that it's a very powerful film, but my feelings about it are mixed. Its central message seems rather trite and its view of history seems a bit too pat and simplistic; we aren't really left with a clear idea of how America went wrong in Vietnam. Unfortunately, however, I'm not sure what I would have done differently. Morris could have turned his film into a biting satire, in which a confused old man believes, for the last time in his life, that he's come up the answers to life's problems. Such an approach would be a bit cruel to McNamara, however, and I'm not sure it would have been appropriate. The Fog of War is extremely powerful when it shows us McNamara's tearful efforts to confront his legacy. It's fascinating when it offers us little-known facts about his career. I can't help but think that the movie's underlying argument and message are a bit of a mess, but as messes go, The Fog of War is definitely worth watching.

Posted by Ed at July 13, 2004 04:14 PM

I saw the movie in the theaters and I don't remember a single one of the 11 lessons and I probably didn't the day after watching the movie either. I agree the first half is an interesting biography that doesn't necessarily have much to do with the Viet Nam aspect. But, it does frame McNamara as analytic and brilliant which Morris wants us to keep in mind during the Viet Nam section. Clearly, the film has a point of view that is sympathetic to McNamara - and really every documentary has a preconcieved thesis whether or not it attempts to be balanced. In this case, I think Morris was questioning the McNamara's legacy as a complete failure as Sec. of State which is probably the current interpretation of history.

You raise a good point in whether the audio clips are selective. I thought this aspect of the movie resonating strongestly with me because of the current administration. With all the media reports, it's easy to project Colin Powell struggling with the other (Neo-Con) cabinet members and losing, but still having to "serve the President."

Another part of the movie that caught my attention was when McNamara met with his Vietnamese counter part recently and proposed that both sides could have achieved their objectives without fighting the war becauase Vietnam wasn't going to give up sovereignty to foreigners and the US wasn't going to let Communism "win." I wish this would have been explored a little bit more. That was sort of one of the problems with the movie: it often reverted to, "the situation was too complex to understand." I don't doubt this is true, but you have to still do some analysis before throwing up your hands in defeat.

Still think it was a great movie. I've liked a lot of other recent documentaries: Riding Giants, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, (Fahrenheit 9/11), Story of the Weeping Camel, and especially Touching the Void - just out on DVD.

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