Morris Turns Lens on McNamara
The film focuses on Robert S. McNamara’s handling of the Vietnam War during his seven-year tenure in the 1960s as U.S. Secretary of Defense.
The film, which was shown in order to raise money for the Harvard Film Archive on the eve of its 25th anniversary, is a melange of the good and the evil, of the present and the past—and, most importantly, of the historical McNamara, seen in documentary footage, and the present-day McNamara as narrator.
Morris divides The Fog of War into 11 sections, each examining a different lesson to learn from McNamara’s life. But the lesson that best explains the film is one that Morris leaves unstated: Actions and the people responsible for them are not as easily explained as one may think.
According to Morris, McNamara emerges from The Fog of War neither as the devil that some claimed he was, nor as a man free from responsibility for great loss of life.
“There’s a deep desire to see Robert McNamara as Satan incarnate,” Morris said, alluding to the fact that McNamara headed the Pentagon during the early years of Vietnam and failed to denounce the war for decades after leaving office.
But Morris’ view of McNamara is not one-sided.
“He’s a man clearly tortured by the past,” the director said. “That fact alone means in some sense he holds himself responsible [for his mistakes].”
Yet, when questioned by Morris in the film, McNamara explicitly says that he was not responsible for bringing the United States into Vietnam—a war that Morris fiercely opposed—nor for keeping the country entrenched in the conflict.
Rather, McNamara puts the blame on President Lyndon B. Johnson, a figure who does not come across flatteringly in Morris’ documentary. Morris unearthed audio archives for this film that present Johnson as a belligerent leader who was consumed by the domino theory (the image of dominoes falling across a map of southeast Asia recurs throughout the film) and was determined to win the conflict before it had even started.
McNamara does admit that he made mistakes, but he never fully takes responsibility for his misdeeds. It is as if he believes that the domino theory applies to him—that a single avowal of guilt will collapse his entire line of defense.
The former secretary of defense admits, “I’m very proud of my accomplishments … [but] I made errors.” However, he goes on to argue that error in war is unavoidable: “We all make mistakes. What ‘the fog of war’ means is that war is so complex that it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables.”
Moreover, he argues that in order to do good you may have to engage in evil (the film’s ninth lesson). But the evil should be as limited as possible, he stresses, noting that proportionality should be a guide in war (lesson five).
Although Morris hinted after the screening that he was disturbed by the idea of engaging in evil for the sake of good, he did agree with McNamara’s belief in the unavoidability of human error.
The film’s final lesson is that human nature cannot be changed. Morris, who said that the lessons gleaned from his interviews with McNamara were far more optimistic than his own views, preferred to take the lessons a step further. “I have a much simpler view,” he explained. “My view is we’re fucked.”
Morris compared the events of the film to America’s present-day engagement in Iraq: “We [McNamara and Morris] could be talking about things that happened four, five, six days ago…The film became increasingly relevant to what is going on today.”
Since Morris started working on the project before Sept. 11, he did not initially expect it to be so germane. “I found [its relevance] ironic and incredibly depressing,” he said.
Despite his pessimism, Morris suggested that the film had great value—not because of its relevance, but because it examines the nature of evil. “It’s much easier to decry evil than to study it,” he said. “That’s the value of my enterprise in this film.”