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Former corporate whiz kid Robert McNamara was the controversial Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, during the height of the Vietnam War. This Academy Award-winning documentary, augmented by archival footage, gives the conflicted McNamara a platform on which he attempts to confront his and the U.S. government's actions in Southeast Asia in light of the horrors of modern warfare, the end of ideology and the punitive judgment of history.Written by
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[Per contact at the Errol Morris Foundation, the date is 8/5/1964, and the clip is from Press Conference on The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, National Archives #111-LC-48220]
[archival footage from the press conference on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 5 August 1964]
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Still Confident and Brilliant, Still Seeking to Hold the Moral High Ground
My first encounter with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was in the late spring of 1966 when, as a young Army Intelligence officer just rotated back from Asia, I was assigned to the General Staff in the Pentagon and directed to brief him. The first of a number of occasions when I either briefed the secretary or, more often, was a resource aide to a senior officer, I was cautioned by a nervous lieutenant colonel to expect questions but never, absolutely never, to ground my response in "intuition." It was the pre-Powerpoint age but all briefers were admonished to either have facts best supported by charts and numbers or to simply confess ignorance.
I acquitted myself reasonably well and there followed almost a year and a half of observing the nation's highest defense officials and generals in the superheated pressure cooker atmosphere of what we called the "Puzzle Palace."
Gifted documentarian Errol Morris's "Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" is a vital and presciently timely examination of a past that can repeat itself with incalculable harm to the United States. Interpolating documentary film clips from World War II through Vietnam with excerpts from an extensive interview with McNamara, the camera always focused on the alert, articulate and still (controllingly) brilliant eighty-six year old former secretary, Morris quickly takes viewers through his early life getting quickly to World War II. Then as an officer specializing in systems analysis he became a significant analyst whose studies supported the carpet bombing of Japan. His comments about General Curtis "Bombs Away with Curt LeMay" LeMay reflect his transition from wartime admiration for a superb combat leader to distrust of a four-star Air Force chief of staff champing at the opportunity to use nuclear weapons while we still had a commanding edge in what came to be called Mutual Assured Destruction.
Interesting and important as McNamara's early war activities were, the crux of his life and the undying source of charge, defense and recrimination is his stewardship of the Defense Department during the early and mid years of the Vietnam conflict.
Where Michael Moore wears his views on his sleeve and on the screen through entertaining ridicule and now predictable pillorying of his subjects, Morris wisely and effectively lets McNamara tell his story, prompted by an off-screen inquisitor whose tone is neither hostile nor friendly. The evidence supports McNamara's claim that he sought disengagement during the Kennedy years and he repeats the unprovable belief that J.F.K. would never have permitted the escalation that followed his death (McNamara's account of being Kennedy's right-hand cabinet man during the Cuban Missile Crisis can only leave viewers dry-mouthed as the implications of the Cold War cat-and-missile game clearly emerge as truly bringing the specter of nuclear conflagration to near reality).
McNamara frames his eleven life lessons, none startling new advances in philosophical thought. He joins many scholars and advocates of binding international law, the majority of whom have never heard a shot fired, in arguing for the concept of proportionality in the exercise of force. He never seems to realize that contemporary armed conflict is very different, politically and militarily, from his wars.
While stating sorrow for what war has wrought, and recognizing his own role, he never apologizes and credibly advances his message for the future through the technique of universalizing: mankind has a problem with violence. I was doing the best I could.
Tapes of conversations with President Johnson, who eventually fired him with such subtlety that the Defense Secretary had to ask a friend whether he had resigned or been canned, are especially fascinating. Fractal shards of a once close and then disintegrating relationship, the brief excerpts illustrate just how little both the President and McNamara actually knew (McNamara made many trips to Vietnam-I remember them well. Each time he came back with a positive spin on what was an unraveling military and political situation).
At the Pentagon I was struck by the almost total concurrence McNamara's policies and statements enjoyed among civilian leaders and generals alike. McNamara, I thought then and now, was not a man who needed sycophants. He was simply so sure he was right that it probably never occurred to him to wonder why he rarely encountered disagreement. I particularly remember Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle Wheeler as a mindless echoer of the secretary's thoughts.
A brilliant documentary and a fair one too. McNamara clearly wants this film to be part of his legacy without it being an apologia.He does admit the United States was wrong in misjudging the nature of Vietnam and its history, wrong about assessing on-the-ground intelligence and wrong in not securing support from nations with traditions and values similar to ours (a curious and somewhat Europhilic anachronism). At the end he clearly and brusquely cuts off questions about personal guilt that, I'm sure, he will never be ready to address. Fair enough.
I generally dislike any music by Philip Glass but in this film the minimalist score works very well against the documentary images. It would have been a big mistake for Morris to use the folk and protest music of the past.
Morris is probably the finest, from an intellectual standpoint, documentarian working today in the U.S.
10/10 (because of its enduring archival and current thought-provoking value)
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