Robert S. McNamara served from 1961 to 1968 as the Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Errol Morris' documentary has been put together through interview sessions with McNamara, White House audiotapes, and archival footage. A large portion of this film examines his involvement in regards to both the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Vietnam War, two momentous foreign policy episodes that occurred during his tenure.
McNamara’s earliest memory is of Armistice Day 1918 as the end of World War I was celebrated. It was called “the war to end all wars,” yet humans have killed more than 160 million humans since then. By speaking out in his 1995 memoir In Retrospect and by participating in this documentary, he hopes humanity will avoid another 160 million fatalities in the 21st Century. Fifteen years in, and we’re unfortunately not off to such a good start.
Over the course of the film, we get insight into how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson came to some decisions regarding the way they fought the Cold War. It is amazing and at the same time nerve-racking to learn how luck has just as much of an impact on world events as do the decisions made. It might strengthen your faith or weaken it to know how close leaders of two of the most powerful countries came to destroying life as we know it. Forty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara met with Castro. He discovered how wrong the U.S. intelligence was during that incident and learned that Kennedy would have started a nuclear war if he had followed the advice of certain staff members regarding how to deal with Premier Khrushchev.
A similar revelation of how wrong our leaders had been was revealed to McNamara in 1995 when he met with Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap. At that meeting, McNamara learned that the United States’ reasons for fighting the war in Vietnam, one of many battles in the Cold War, were not the same reasons the Vietnamese had in fighting it: the North Vietnamese were in a civil war and saw the United States as colonialists. If the Johnson Administration had known this and used more diplomacy, could the war have been ended sooner? Would it even have begun?
The excellent interviews of McNamara were filmed with the use of Morris’ Interrotron, which uses video and a one-way mirror to project the face of the interviewer onto the lens of a camera. This device creates "direct-eye contact" with the camera that is passed on directly to the viewer of the film. McNamara provides a running monologue of the events, but every once in a while, Morris can be heard asking a pertinent question in response to his statements. This wasn’t a distraction because Morris’ questions usually resembled something I was pondering in reaction to what McNamara was saying. McNamara doesn’t answer every question put to him, which some of his critics, and he has many, will complain about. Some answers he doesn’t know, others he won’t answer because his speculation won’t solve anything.
Although it’s impossible for McNamara to be completely objective, he comes across as someone who has spent a lot of time reflecting on past decisions and he is sincere in passing on the knowledge he has acquired from his soul searching. He wants to warn others about mistakes made by the United States in hopes that they will not be repeated, even when those mistakes were the correct course of action with the information at hand.
The "fog of war" is the cause for some of these mistakes. It’s a term he uses to describe that there are too many variables for someone to see the whole picture during wartime. Decisions are informed by obscured glimpses through patches of fog. Without seeing the whole picture, it’s only natural that regardless of motives and intentions some decisions will be the wrong ones.
At one time or another, most of us reflect upon turning points in our lives, hypothesizing and daydreaming about our own choices, and it’s interesting to see McNamara reliving the decisions that were made. While Socrates says, “an unexamined life is not worth living,” it must be tough to reconcile all the deaths McNamara and others were responsible for, especially the unnecessary ones, which were the result of both right and wrong actions taken. They weren’t malicious or evil men, but sometimes they had to choose evil actions for what they perceived was the greater good.
The Fog of War also reviews McNamara’s eleven lessons, which appeared previously in his book. They offer good advice to all world leaders who are taking their countries into war and should be studied as a companion to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The lessons seem timely; however, if all the epilogues and postscripts to the war to end all wars are a trend, then this film will unfortunately always have a contemporary feel to it. The last lesson is “You can’t change human nature,” which if accurate is depressing. Hopefully, this film will refute that lesson.