I just got around to watching Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War. I didn’t see this film when it first came out, probably because 2003 was a busy year for me. I found it somewhat disappointing. Much of it consists of McNamara trying to justify his actions. I should have expected that, but the reviews I read led me to believe it would be much more than that. Still, the film does have some interesting moments, and it gives some insight into the way one member of the ruling class thinks. I don’t think this is a minor thing. I think that perhaps the reason so many people on the Left are suckers for crackpot conspiracy theories is that they don’t have much understanding of how the ruling class thinks.
The film begins with McNamara, who is shown in tight close-ups most of the time, discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara repeatedly points out the U.S. and the Soviet Union came extremely close to a nuclear war. McNamara uses his account of the crisis to illustrate one of the “eleven lessons” he talks about in the course of The Fog of War; in this case, “empathize with your enemy”. McNamara tells how a diplomat named Tommy Thompson, who knew Krushchev well, persuaded a skeptical Kennedy that the Soviet premier would be willing to cut a deal over Cuba, which turned out to be the case. This raises the question of why there was a crisis at all, though, unfortunately, Morris doesn’t ask this question. McNamara also uses this incident to illustrate another one of his “lessons”: “rationality will not save us”. McNamara insists that the governments of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Cuba all behaved in a “rational” manner, even though they brought their countries to the brink of nuclear annihilation. So, if this is rationality, then what is irrationality? And if rationality will not save us, then what will? Morris doesn’t ask, and McNamara doesn’t say.
The Fog of War then goes into a discussion of McNamara’s early years. During the Second World War, he served as an analyst for the Army Air Corps. Under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, McNamara helped plan the fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people. This leads to the film’s most startling moment: McNamara frankly states that he and Gen. LeMay were war criminals. Still, he expresses no regrets about what he did.
The largest section of the film is devoted to the Vietnam War. McNamara doesn’t say much about the strategic justification for the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam; he seems to consider this to be self-evident. McNamara admits that there was some confusion over what actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident; nevertheless, he and President Johnson used it as justification to launch an intensive bombing campaign in North Vietnam. McNamara also gives a discussion in which he tries to distance himself from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. To illustrate his “lesson” of “empathize with your enemy”, McNamara talks about how years after the war he met the former foreign minister of North Vietnam. McNamara says he was surprised to learn from this man that his government viewed the U.S. as a foreign colonial power trying to take control of their country. Reall? It never occurred to McNamara that the Vietnamese might view the U.S. in this way? If McNamara was being honest here, then he was every bit as self-deluded as the people who led us into the Iraq War. (It so happens that this film was released the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)
McNamara casually discusses the deaths of millions of people, yet he gets choked up when he recounts how he helped pick out the grave-site for John F. Kennedy. One is reminded here of Stalin’s dictum: “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” I don’t think it is a stretch for me to say that McNamara had some of Stalin’s bureaucratic mind-set.
Another of McNamara’s “lessons” is “in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil”. One wonders if McNamara ever questioned whether what he was trying to do was actually good.