The Fog of War

I saw The Fog of War when it was released in theatres in 2004 on two separate occasions with two diametrically opposed friends. First, with a liberal social activist, who like me, and the film’s maker Errol Morris, had protested the Vietnam war. Second time was with my husband, an avowed conservative and former marine who served three years in Vietnam. My friend and my husband saw two completely different movies–a fact that demonstrates not only the legacy of the Vietnam war but the enigmatic power that former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who served Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, still held over the American people. McNamara’s recent death warrants a renewed interest in the documentary in which he spoke on the record in an amazingly revealing series of interview.

My liberal friend, assuming The Fog of War would demonize McNamara as the architect of the Vietnam War, was surprised to discover it actually humanized him, not only by telling his life story (including chapters at Harvard, WWII, Ford Motor Company, and the World Bank), but also by revealing his compassionate side, such as when he broke into tears when he had to decide the final resting place of his friend, the assassinated president, John F. Kennedy. Like me, my friend was shocked at some of the film’s revelations, such as the American firebombing of 67 Japanese cities in World War II, which in the opinion of McNamara (and many others) made the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary.

My husband, on the other hand, felt McNamara, age 85 at the time of the interviews, was just like any other old veteran, telling war stories and reminiscing from the safe distance of decades. Was he shocked by the facts of U.S. fire bombings in Japan? No, it wasn’t a secret, he says, anyone who knows WWII history knew about it—why don’t liberals learn more about our country’s military history?

My opinion of the film is a synthesis of the opinions of my friend and my husband–and the variety of research and experience I brought to the viewing. There are all kinds of analyses of the film by many film critics and I urge you to seek them out on the Internet. But the basic questions for me are the ones raised by the film and frankly, they’re too uncomfortable for most people to deal with—do we not as citizens share responsibility for what our government officials do? Where does our self-righteousness end and our courage begin and where indeed is the line separating those who commit evil and those who turn a blind eye to it?

The Fog of War tells a lot of truths, but it’s not the truth with a capital “T.” After release of this film, many critics claimed McNamara’s memory of some things, no matter how articulately he speaks, is inaccurate. In all honesty, the only way I feel you can approach The Fog of War is as a piece of art not as a presentation of the last word. It’s a brilliant example of dramatic documentary filmmaking, powerfully combining different cinematic techniques—interviews, graphics, historical footage, and music into a whole that is alternately funny, sad, sobering, exalting, and terrifying.

Here’s where the problem lies with such a film. Who’s going to see it? Aging baby boomers who are already documentary lovers and members of the choir Morris is preaching to? I watched numerous X-geners in the audience–but without any “been there/done that” true life experience of McNamara and his times, they were squirming in their seats and laughing at things that weren’t funny. Bottom-line is they didn’t get it. No doubt sent there as a class assignment by some well-meaning history teacher, the film was a waste of time for them.

Yet hope always springs eternal—there were a few young people with middle-aged parents in tow. Fog, seen together by people of different political perspectives, and by different generations, can be a shared experience whose benefit goes way beyond the closing credits—and into the inevitable questions today about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and war in general.

The Fog of War is now easily available at local video stores and online venues like Netflix. I urge you to see it with as many different people as you can squeeze into your living room. In the hopes the documentary will spark conversation, I’ve listed the eleven points that director Errol Morris culled from his 20 hours of interviews with McNamara and used as markers in the film.

The Eleven Rules of Life Errol Morris Extracted from the life of Robert S. McNamara:

1. Empathize with your enemy.2. Rationality will not save us. 3. There is something beyond yourself. 4. Maximize efficiency. 5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. 6. Get the data. 7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong. 8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning. 9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. 10. Never say “never.”11. You can’t change human nature.

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