- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

“This idea of preventive war has made a comeback,” Errol Morris says from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He doesn’t mean that in a good way. The documentary filmmaker, who spotlighted the quirky world of pet cemeteries (“Gates of Heaven”) and is credited with helping free a wrongly convicted murderer from a Texas prison (“The Thin Blue Line”), sees in President Bush’s “smoke ‘em out” rhetoric the same Strangelovian itch as 40 years ago for a tactical first strike against the Soviet Union.

Mr. Morris, 55, isn’t comfortable being called an activist, but he’ll happily tell you he participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which he says “served no constructive end.”

“It was a terrible, terrible thing for this country, not to mention the Vietnamese,” he says. “I guess if someone asked me if it was evil, I would say yes.”

Through the lens of the Vietnam era, Mr. Morris’ latest film, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which opens today at Landmark Bethesda Row and Visions Cinema, is an oblique commentary on America’s interventions in the war on terrorism.

It never mentions Iraq or Afghanistan or anything of the sort, and the one doing all the mentioning is Robert McNamara, the iconic former defense secretary from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

A documentary with stylish flourishes — composer Philip Glass contributed a characteristically moody soundtrack — “The Fog of War” is a long and intimate conversation with a chatty and occasionally emotional Mr. McNamara, often zooming so closely into his face that you can see the metal fillings in his mouth.

“McNamara, for many people of my generation, has become almost an emblem of that war and everything that was wrong with it,” Mr. Morris explains.

That, at least, was Mr. Morris’ attitude when, in spring 2001, he first contacted Mr. McNamara, who, at 87, lives in the Washington area. That attitude would undergo substantial revision.

“I just called him at his office number, and he picked up the phone,” Mr. Morris says of his first conversation with Mr. McNamara, who had just published the foreign policy manifesto “Wilson’s Ghost” with international relations scholar James G. Blight.

Mr. McNamara has been on the apology circuit for almost 10 years, traveling to Cuba and Vietnam to meet old foes in the flesh and proffer mea culpas.

Mr. Morris explains that the former technocrat’s current multilateralist views “are almost like a laundry list of views opposed to the current administration.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that even though the events discussed in “Fog” took place generations ago, the documentary’s subtext is current events, and Mr. Morris is playing to the bleachers.

Still, as far as polemics go, “Fog” is at the opposite pole from the work of pseudo-documentarian Michael Moore. It is careful about its facts, not least because Mr. McNamara’s own memory seems extraordinarily sharp.

Also, though it may not sympathize with Mr. McNamara, it humanizes him in a way that may surprise even his harshest detractors.

Flakily, the film goes to strenuous lengths to argue that had President Kennedy lived, he and Mr. McNamara wouldn’t have escalated the war in Vietnam to the degree President Johnson later did. Snippets of private conversations the defense secretary had with both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Johnson are used to bolster what is essentially an unprovable claim.

What Mr. Morris is suggesting — and, pointedly, what Mr. McNamara never actually says on his own behalf — is that the horrendous policy of graduated response was more Mr. Johnson’s doing than Mr. McNamara’s.

“Fog” is on more solid ground when it dispels the image of Mr. McNamara as a sort of monstrous systems analyst run amok — “the picture,” as Mr. Morris puts it, “of McNamara as the number-cruncher, the statistician who blundered his way into Vietnam and then cried alligator tears when it was far too late to do anything.”

Chronicling Mr. McNamara’s humble childhood in the San Francisco Bay area and his highly self-motivated education at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard, through his service in World War II under Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, “Fog” pauses from war talk to highlight his stint as an executive at Ford Motor Co.

Mr. McNamara recalls looking for ways to prevent serious injuries in car wrecks and overseeing experiments that involved dropping human skulls down several flights of steps — an image Mr. Morris creepily re-enacts. The seat belt was another innovation of that period.

What “Fog” suggests, too tentatively, is that the same sort of technical bureaucracy — whether it’s Ford or the U.S. government marshaling the data — can both save and exterminate lives.

Is that the fault of an individual such as Mr. McNamara, or should we blame the complex modern culture that he mastered? Is evil, in short, banal?

Mr. McNamara, while evasive for much of “Fog,” addresses this point directly. Startlingly, he says that he and Gen. LeMay “behaved like war criminals” as they planned the incineration of Japanese cities even before the two atomic bombs were dropped.

“I find that whole section on the fire-bombing immensely interesting,” Mr. Morris says. “Why was it necessary to drop the bomb when we had already essentially destroyed Japan?”

One possible answer is that Japan refused to surrender, but the point Mr. McNamara was trying to make holds: Why single out the methodology of the A-bomb when even more Japanese had been killed conventionally?

Still, it’s World War I that most bothers the director. The idea of a war to end war — “Wilson’s ghost” — is what he believes is animating President Bush’s foreign policy.

“It’s the great illusion, perhaps the greatest self-deception, that you can prevent war through war,” Mr. Morris declaims.

He sees shades of quagmire in Iraq, and Mr. McNamara probably does too. Mr. Morris believes the former defense secretary has learned from history, from his own mistakes, while the Bush administration is repeating them.

Never considered is the possibility Mr. McNamara learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam and that the Bushies have learned the right ones. It’s often said that only a Harvard man such as Mr. McNamara could have come up with the idea of a gradually escalating war.

Whether or not the policy was conceived at Harvard Business School, you’ll recall there’s an opposing doctrine, attributed to the current secretary of state, entailing the use of “overwhelming force.” Where it has been tried — Panama, Desert Storm — it has succeeded, quagmire-free.

The talk now, of course, is of gradually de-escalating the engagement in Iraq. That may or may not be a good idea.

Either way, perhaps we can all — hawk, dove, owl and ostrich — agree on a 12th lesson from the life of Robert S. McNamara: Ignore all lessons on war and peace from a man as responsible as anyone for getting us into — and then proceeding to lose — the Vietnam War, the first U.S. defeat in war since 1812.

Let us agree on this. It is the only way to stop this man from apologizing again.

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