Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he is speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people – unnecessarily. His own troops or other troops. Through mistakes, through errors of judgement. A hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is: don’t make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. There’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. Make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.
Robert McNamara is quite a guy. Errol Morris uses an innovative “Interrotron” camera that basically lets McNamara look into the camera and see Morris’s face using tech similar to a teleprompter. It’s supposed to get a more immediate interview with the subject looking directly into the camera and even arguing with it. It works. McNamara’s clearly a smart guy and his ability to articulate what he went through in his time as Secretary of Defense and his life as a whole is pretty astounding. I have lived around 1/3 as much as McNamara had at this point and I certainly couldn’t talk about that time as well as he does here.
He says his earliest memory is of the end of The Great War. He was two at the time. 80 years later he can still remember seeing the people celebrate atop cars on the street and the sense of an end to all wars. It was the last big war we would ever fight. Of course, maybe he’s fabricating that memory, as 2 is a little young for a memory so vivid to stick, but maybe it’s just part of his being. He’s a man of war, fighting in WWII and acting as the Secretary of Defense for the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam war. He was also a professor at Harvard and the president of Ford Motor Co. for a few weeks. After resigning/getting fired from the Secretary of Defense job he became the president of the World Bank. The doc doesn’t touch on that last part very much, but that’s fine. Morris frames the doc as 11 lessons learned from McNamara’s life about how to fight wars and live effectively. They’re all good lessons, ranging from “Get the data” to “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” They’re all good lessons and McNamara expounds on them eloquently.
Morris intersperses archival footage between the interview footage, which works wonderfully. His hand is a little heavy, especially in the use of dominoes falling over a map and numbers taking the place of bombs dropping from the sky during a montage showing the calculations behind war. While these techniques are a little on the nose, I still appreciated them for their audacity. It’s not often a documentary allows for the director to stretch his artistic legs and it makes for a fun watch. That’s not to say this movie bends to Morris’s will. McNamara will often start a segment with a line like “Wait, we have to go back before we can get to that.” He’s always providing context. You can’t talk about Vietnam before you talk about the end of WWII because nuclear war is the (a?) reason why Vietnam was so messed up. He’s also not afraid to talk about what he got wrong. Early on he speaks to how knowing Khrushchev allowed the US to get out of the Cuban Missile Crisis without launching into full out war. At the end he explains that the US just couldn’t get into the minds of the Vietnamese. They didn’t understand why they were fighting or what they were fighting for. It’s maybe the biggest problem with that war and McNamara demonstrates exactly how and why they got into that situation.
The Fog of War is a fascinating document of a fascinating person. It doesn’t gloss over anything. I was afraid it would ignore the criticism he faced later in his 7 year tenure as Secretary of Defense but it gets ample time late in the film. McNamara talks about how all of this is hindsight, even those criticisms are in hindsight, so it’s hard to blame him for what happened. Also interesting is the different relationships he had with the two presidents he served, JFK and LBJ. His analysis of two pictures taken during a meeting of he and LBJ is pretty funny and telling. Each frustrated with the other not paying attention to him. Stubbornness is one of those human emotions that will always make war harder and longer than it needs to be. Just another lesson from the long, strange, complicated life of Robert McNamara.