The Fog of War

Provost's Film Series

September 20, 2004


Blue Numbers, Strange Partners

The most chilling images in The Fog of War are numbers:  blue, grease-penciled digits falling out of the sky over civilian Tokyo.  After filling his documentary with archival footage of American firebombs cascading toward the wooden cities of Japan, director Errol Morris shifts to metaphor to drive home the shock of bureaucratic efficiency.  The falling blue integers are the handwritten bombing calculations of some of the best and brightest of young American minds, like the young officer Robert McNamara, a prodigy out of Berkeley and Harvard.  The Fog of War is McNamara’s testimony—one part lecture, one part confessional, an unlikely collaboration by an architect of war and an anti-war filmmaker.  

In 2001, 85-year-old McNamara, former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, agreed to tell his story to Morris, an idiosyncratic, left-leaning movie-maker and student protestor during the 1960s.  As defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara became a lightning rod for the anti-war movement.  Once blasted as an "IBM machine with legs," McNamara was perceived as the coldly efficient mastermind of the expanding American presence in Vietnam, the war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and some three million Vietnamese.


McNamara's Career

Born in 1916, Robert McNamara was the son of a shoe salesman.  He finished an economics degree at Berkeley, earned an M.B.A. from Harvard, and became an accountant with Price, Waterhouse.  In 1942 he entered the army as a captain, eventually assisting with the strategies for the massive firebombing of Japan during World War II.  After the war he accepted a financial post with Ford Motor Company, rising quickly through the organization to become its president in 1960.  That same year Kennedy enticed him to join his Cabinet as Secretary of Defense.  During his tenure in the post, McNamara was known as an excellent manager, asserting civilian control over the military, squashing rivalries between branches of the service, reducing government waste, integrating computers into the military, and establishing a "systems approach" to decision-making.  Both admirers and detractors acknowledge that he strengthened NATO and highlighted the threat of nuclear disaster.  

But it was his numbers-crunching proficiency that raised public concerns about his moral sense.   McNamara developed formulas that defined how much death and destruction were acceptable.  For instance, he insisted that the U.S. needed the quick-strike capacity to immediately destroy a quarter of the Soviet population and half of the Soviet industry in order to deter the Russians from employing a nuclear bomb first.  As The Fog of War reveals, McNamara claims that it was only "luck" that spared the nation from nuclear disaster during the Cuban missile crisis.  Eventually, as the quagmire of the war in Vietnam eroded public confidence in the Johnson administration, McNamara was pressured to resign. Between 1968 and 1981 he served as president of the World Bank.


Errol Morris

Currently a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Errol Morris was born on Long Island in 1948, finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and did graduate study at Princeton and Berkeley.  For two years he was a detective on Wall Street, smoking out financial scams in what he called the "high end" of private eye work.  He claims that filmmaking is much like criminal investigation:  "It really comes down to your ability to talk to people, and, even more significantly, to have people talk to you."  His documentaries often focus on eccentric topics, such as his breakthrough film Gates of Heaven, a satiric look at pet cemeteries. Other notable works include The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, a film about physicist Stephen Hawking.  To support his documentaries, he has been willing to make commercials, and his ads for Miller High Life, Volkswagen, and Adidas run frequently.  After a highly successful package of ads about PC users who switched to Macintosh, he was enticed to do a series featuring Bush supporters who have switched to Kerry.   


Breaking Silence

For much of his career, McNamara kept a cold silence about his scruples over the Vietnam War, even after he lost Lyndon Johnson’s confidence and left office under a cloud in 1967.  He remained stubbornly loyal to his commanders-in-chief, refusing to condemn the war that he no longer endorsed or to subvert a White House he could no longer serve. But in 1995 he broke the silence with his memoir In Retrospect, a wide-ranging mea culpa with an edge of vindication.  Six years later, in Wilson’s Ghost, he and his co-writer James Blight sought to define the principles that would reduce the risk of catastrophe and carnage in the twenty-first century.  That book caught Morris’s attention. He invited McNamara for a two-hour interview, but the former Secretary of Defense remained for a full eight hours—only to return for three more full days. What was conceived as a brief sketch for PBS grew into a full-fledged documentary that would eventually grab the Academy Award.  

By then an American invasion in Iraq seemed immanent, and McNamara’s musings and memories, long sheltered from the public, became fiercely relevant. In his brief acceptance speech at the Oscars, Morris alluded to the impending and still undeclared war.  "Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died.  I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again."


The Lair of His Own Words

By the time he sat to speak to Morris, McNamara had grown weary of “cynicism” about American leadership, and in his memoirs he was eager to “set Vietnam in context.”  After three decades his villainy was calcified in the minds of many Americans:  in his memoirs McNamara was eager to assert that he and his wartime colleagues had “acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation.”  But he also granted that good intentions could not excuse ethical blindness or political failure.  “I concede with painful candor, “ he declares, “and a heavy heart that the adage applies to me and to my generation of American leadership regarding Vietnam.  Although we sought to do the right thing—and believed that we were doing the right thing—in my judgment hindsight proves us wrong.” 

Their faults, according to McNamara, were both strategic and moral.  They miscalculated the enemy’s geopolitical intentions, trusted too much in modern, high-tech weapons, remained stubbornly unilateral, and failed to organize the “echelons of the executive branch” to deal with the complexities of war.  Most of all, they failed “to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.” Like In Retrospect, The Fog of War is a confession of short-sightedness and failure, but the robust octogenarian that we encounter in the film is striving more fervently for the hearts and minds of his audience.  He wants to be the sage—the wise counselor, and all the wiser for his past mistakes.

Morris grants him his day in court.  He allows McNamara to lecture, to scrape his conscience, to warn about the repeat of the past.  Backing some of the happier moments in the narrative with tender images—warm family smiles, childish playfulness, a blue-toned snow—Morris gives us reason to care about the former secretary, especially in moments of sacrifice and pain.  The father who recalls his family’s ulcers and sufferings—and the secretary who, tearfully, finds the “most beautiful spot” in Arlington National Cemetery for his friend John Kennedy—emerges as a sympathetic figure.   But in the stark, unforgiving gaze of his studio the director also captures McNamara in moments of uncertainty and silence, his eyes moist, his glasses refractory, his voice fragmented. The pain of the tale is not just the sorrows of the past, but that this self-confident, proud but frail man gets caught occasionally in the lair of his own words.


Myth and Morality

One clue to Morris's complex purposes in the film can be traced back to a conversation in the White House on October 2, 1963.  Just released by the Kennedy Library in Boston, a tape of that conversation reveals the young Secretary of Defense appealing to President Kennedy to pull American advisors and troops out of Vietnam.  During a subsequent conversation in 1964, President Johnson assails McNamara for his earlier reticence to press the war.  "It is not my intent to exonerate McNamara for his involvement in the planning of the Vietnam War," Morris observes, "but to correct a common misperception that President Johnson was bullied into a war that he had no intention of fighting."  The filmmaker focuses on "one of the central myths about the escalation of the war"—the view of a "bellicose McNamara egging on a vacillating LBJ."

As he did in his memoir In Retrospect (1995), McNamara presents himself in the film as a reluctant warrior.  He appears "intent to serve my president," doubtful about the plan and purpose of the war but unwilling to object in public because it would give "aid to the enemy."  Now, at 85, he seeks to be the astute statesman, not a hawk but an advocate for "just war" principles.  As he edited his material, Morris extracts eleven "lessons" from McNamara's tale.  (Interestingly, McNamara later developed his own list of ten lessons, not all that different from Morris' version.) McNamara wants to look forward, to stress that people in high positions make errors and that we must all be ready to learn from them.  But he refuses to enter into some of the moral terrain where Morris would take him.  For McNamara, guilt often seems irrelevant to learning.  Or is he merely hiding his own troubled conscience?  That emerges as the film's lingering riddle.   


Just War?

In his books, McNamara does enter the moral terrain.  He refers to the Christian "Just War" tradition as a reference point for his own moral quandaries about responsibility and guilt.  The Just War tradition—primarily the fruit of Catholic thought—looks to Augustine for its first germination.  Distressed by the sacking of Rome by western European vandals, Augustine foresaw peril for Christendom, and accordingly devoted some theological energy to shaping an argument for self-defense.  Over the centuries the tradition has been seasoned with the ideas of church leaders, such as Ambrose and Aquinas, as well as the work of some Protestants, notably the Dutch Arminian Hugo Grotius.  Under the shadow of Hitler’s tyranny, Reinhold Niebuhr reminded Christians of Augustine’s claim that “Love may require force to protect the innocent.”  At its core, the Just War theory insists that, under the right circumstances, war is not simply permissible but a moral obligation.  As Paul Ramsey argues, when faced with threats to the lives of the innocent, a believer’s willingness to go to war can “express the Christian’s understanding of moral and political responsibility.”  Augustine had argued that “peace is the tranquility of order.”  For modern Just War theorists, peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the establishment of order and justice.  Justice, as Jean Beth Elstain contends, can even be considered the moral mean between peace and power. 

Traditionally, Christian Just War theory has been divided into two streams:  ius ad bellum, or the law of going to war, and ius in bello, or law in war.  The first stream has dominated recent debates about the American intervention into Iraq, not the least because the new Bush administration doctrine of “preemptive war” has stretched beyond the conventional ius ad bellum rationale.  But McNamara’s obsessions are with the second strain.  He does not quarrel with the necessity to fight German or Japanese aggression.  And, in the film, we hear virtually nothing describing his opposition to resisting Communism in Vietnam, other than his doubts that the war was winnable. But, recalling his own role in the firebombing of Toyko, he mourns that humanity has not yet grabbled with the “rules of war.” 

Not that he poses many solutions.  Inter armas silent leges,” the Romans used to say:  “In war, the laws are silent.”  In watching the film, you cannot listen to McNamara’s painful recollections of the Japanese firebombing—or even his memories of Agent Orange in Vietnam—without suspecting that in his heart he fears that he has decimated his own creed that “portionality should be a guideline in war.”  But how does one draw boundaries?  About the only boundary lines drawn in The Fog of War resort to nationalism.  Part of the challenge for Just War Christians has always been to reconcile Old Testament precepts on war—which are often concerned with “nations”—with the “progressive revelation” of New Testament precepts that disown violence and dwell on individual rather than political redemption.  That Christian teaching—along with McNamara’s increasing appeals for multi-nationalism—undercut the sole rationale that national interests can vindicate disproportionate military responses.     


Leadership and Guilt

McNamara, though, does embrace one key element of Just War theory:  the necessity of leaving the moral decisions to those elected into power.  The Catholic Catechism concedes that “the evaluation of the conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the public good.”  In his defense of the Iraq War, Catholic scholar Michael Novak admits his respect for “those who voice their own judgments of conscience” but does not allow them to trump the decisions of an executive’s inner circle, largely because that circle may have access to far more information.  Morris himself wants us to respect the weight of the war on the lives of the decision makers.  We catch glimpses of McNamara at the edge of brokenness.  The defense minister wants to keep his private life hidden, but admits that the stress of the war led to his wife’s ulcer—and most likely, a premature death.  Recounting the self-burning of the Quaker pacifist Norman Morrison below his office, the former Secretary of Defense admits that wartime was a “very difficult position for sensitive people to be in.  Morrison was one of them; I think I was.”  

Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that “power cannot be wielded without guilt . . . even as it tries to subject itself to universal standards, and place itself under the control of a nascent world-wide community.”  In Wilson’s Ghost, McNamara and Blight call upon Michael Walzer, a sharp critic of the war in Vietnam but a proponent of the Iraq invasion, to define the anguish of wartime leadership.  “Were no guilt involved, the decisions they make would be less agonizing than they are.  And they can only prove their honor by accepting responsibility for those decisions by living out the agony . . . . A moral theory that made their life easier, or that concealed the dilemma from the rest of us . . . would miss. . . or repress the reality of war.”  “Fair or not,” McNamara and Blight conclude, “the burden of responsibility will be a fact of life for those who would seek to fulfill the moral imperative to reduce communal killing in the 21st century.”

Intimate and Off-Kilter Techniques

For his documentary, Morris invented a device he called an Interrotron, which he would later use in many of his commercials.  This is a camera with mirrors, an apparatus that allows the interviewee to make eye contact with the interviewer behind the camera.  The goal is to encourage a more relaxed, conversational and intimate tone. 

The real aesthetic thread in the film may be the music of the minimalist Phillip Glass—a quiet, pulsating rhythm of synthesized violins, with a few abortive melodies by a flute or clarinet.  Vietnam films, in search of Shakespearean pathos, have often drawn on rock standards or orchestral classics to signal violence and shame.  Oliver Stone relies on Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to capture the retrospective angst after the massacre of civilians in Platoon.  Francis Ford Coppola turns to the Stones, the Doors and Richard Wagner for the surreal blend of fear and bravado in Apocalypse Now. But Glass’s minimalism remains just as unnerving, largely because it is so understated and persistent. The cadence of the synthesizer keeps the viewer on edge and the baroque phrasing often blends with the sights and sounds of wartime machinery—the symmetric alignment of bombs on the airfield, the steady cycle and clicks of the White House tape recorder.  It is not the music of a battlefield crescendo, but rather the soundtrack to everyday decision-making, often driven by numbers and charts.  When the flute and clarinet strive after a melody, it is almost always short-lived.  Or it becomes ironic, a soft but high-pitched cry against the images on the screen of military power and death.  Many of the short melodies eventually collapse into the unrelenting pulse of the violins and synthesizer, even as the cadence accelerates and amplifies.  This is not, Morris implies, a Wagnerian war.  It is the calculation—and the folly—of bureaucrats, many of them well-meaning, and the quickening pace of the synthesizer merely underscores how easily one day’s prudent risk is quickly drawn into a maelstrom of haste, moral confusion and human carnage.

Part of Morris's technique is to juxtapose archival footage with modern symbols.  Falling dominos on the map of Southeast Asia are a heavy-handed allusion to the "domino theory" about the spread of communism.  More subtle are urban walkers set against a narrative about nuclear violence, a hint of future ghosts.  Not all critics applaud Morris' famous "off-kilter style," with its frequent abrupt, jarring edits.  But he has strong admirers among the nation's best-known critics.  Janet Maslin of the New York Times calls Morris a "one-of-a-kind filmmaker, capable of melding science, philosophy, poetry and sheer whimsy."  Roger Ebert describes him as a "magician and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini."