Registering the Registry 2019: The Fog of War (2003)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! For our final round, we shall be considering Errol Morris’ picture of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, his life, his lessons, and his follies, 2003’s The Fog of War! With accolades high as the Academy Award for Best Documentary and acclaim as one of Morris’ best, what will we make of the work? Let’s find out!
(Apologies for the delay. Coronavirus recovery, you understand.)
One last historical table-setting for the round. Robert S. McNamara (1916–2009), as the first line of his Wikipedia page will tell you, served as the eighth United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, a seven year tenure not matched by any other individual to hold the office. Noted for his groundbreaking use of statistical analysis as a means of organizing and running military matters, McNamara developed the methods he would eventually make national policy during his time in the US air force, analyzing and tweaking the efficiency of bombing runs in Japan at the tail end of WWII, and shortly thereafter as one of the Ford Motor Company’s new class of “Whiz Kids,” whose rationalized production planning techniques and mind towards consumer satisfaction/safety turned the company’s prospects about and eventually elevated McNamara to President of Ford in late 1960. This position would not last long, however, as recently-elected President John F. Kennedy tapped McNamara to serve as Secretary of Defense shortly after, a position he reluctantly but gladly accepted. In his capacity as executive officer of the Defense Department, McNamara gained further notoriety for his pushes towards project consolidation and munitions purchases based on what was analytically right for the job rather than relying on outdated standards or preferences. His nuclear policy in particular is noted as a major change from the preceding decade, abandoning the MacArthur/Eisenhower approach of treating nuclear warheads as an overwhelming force to be deployed with maximum offense at first opportunity in favor of relying on newly-obtained data to determine how smaller, strategically placed groupings of missiles might deter either side from firing. To hear the man himself tell it in The Fog of War, this scaling-down approach to conventional and new fields of warfare made him quite unpopular amongst other top-level cabinet members and high-ranking generals, but it also allowed him to serve as one of the cooler heads in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis and avoid a rapid escalation into hot, swift war. In later years, following his departure from the Secretary position, he also served as President of the World Bank for thirteen years and spearheaded a movement to combat global poverty, again relying on statistical analysis to guide the way.
Of course, unlike McNamara in The Fog of War, we cannot dance around his largest legacy long: Robert S. McNamara was not the sole figure responsible for the United States’ entry into the Vietnam War, nor was he the lone man accountable for every wrong and foul committed in that shamble of a conflict, but he was an instrumental figure in turning a poorly-advised entry into boots-on-ground fighting in a battle with which America had no legitimate reason for engagement into the utterly shameful boondoggle it became. To writ:
- McNamara’s early progress reports during the years leading to the CIA-backed coup against South Vietnamese President and brutal ant-Buddhist dictator Ngô Đình Diệm were frequently based on false or heavily doctored intel indicating the war with the North Vietnamese forces was proceeding far better than in reality, a façade which only served to goad the notoriously prideful McNamara into digging his boots in the ground and investing a great degree of personal and national pride in the conflict proceeding as he wanted. Following the United States’ 1964 entry in on-the-ground fighting, McNamara’s reports to the public and occasionally top brass continued to indicate the war was going well and would prove easily winnable in short order, a trend he kept running until his 1968 resignation from the post.
- Being as McNamara valued statistics and hard data above all else, he and those below him formulated and advanced daily kill counts as a reliable metric for measuring progress in Vietnam. As one might imagine, raw body counts do very little to inform one of territory control or impact on the citizenry, and indeed tend to result in soldiers and commanders artificially inflating their counts by outright lying or killing non-combatants to receive their incentivized bonuses for doing well on a regular basis. Again, this policy continued throughout his entire tenure as Defense Secretary, and on through the remainder of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
- Drawing on his experiences with firebombing Japan and the effectiveness of destroying Japanese transportation and storage infrastructure, McNamara’s strategy for aerial warfare in Vietnam involved constant, heavy bombings of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong transit routes. As he would come to realize over the course of the war, the underdeveloped nature of the nation and the opposing forces’ penchant for moving men and supplies through rough or densely foliaged terrain meant the bombings did almost nothing to stymy effective movement. Instead, all they accomplished was the needless death of countless civilians, and a strengthening of Vietnamese morale against American invaders. This policy he DID attempt to reverse towards the end of his tenure, except…
- As McNamara was perceived as a civilian unjustly elevated to a position of power over trained military men (despite his service record), and as his habits of consolidating military programs and going against tradition in the name of efficiency chaffed the established army culture hard, McNamara never proved particularly effective when it came to wielding soft power with regards to Vietnam. During the Missile Crisis, yes, thank God, but his advocacy for anti-guerilla, anti-insurgency training and tactics fell on completely deaf ears for years on end, which resulted in the infamously ineffective platoon-based search-and-destroy operations that turned the conflict into an inescapable quagmire for years. This same tendency to alienate those from whom he needed close cooperation also prevented a halt to the bombing campaigns, because the men responsible for such decisions regarded the Defense Secretary as a lily-livered coward with no stomach for real war.
- Perhaps most inexcusably, McNamara met President Johnson’s demand for more infantrymen by lowering the physical and IQ standards for entrance into the military, in a move officially named Project 100,000, but commonly derided as McNamara’s Morons. In spite of the cruel nickname, the program largely drew on men from economically disadvantaged areas (read: largely black men) whose education left them ill-equipped to do well on a typical IQ test, alongside many others who were legitimately physically, mentally, or emotionally unfit for active combat. With many also unfit for technical or officer-level positions, Project 100,000 soldiers were funneled into the infantry more often than not, and posted a casualty rate three times higher than the average soldier over the course of the war. It is not remotely an original observation, but the image of fellow Registry inductee Forrest Gump sent to die for a cause he does not and cannot understand isn’t too far from reality in many cases.
And this needlessly long itinerary of McNamara’s sins is only a small sampling of the relevant material, neglecting as it does his poorly-managed distribution of foreign aide to the point South Vietnamese forces realized they could simply rely on the US and not actually fight themselves with no risk of losing the aide; the deployment of the nightmarish herbicide Agent Orange; the incidents in which McNamara taunted and insulted student protestors upon realizing they knew the history of the country he was bombing better than himself; the shady history behind the possibly entirely fictional Gulf of Tonkin incident which served as the excuse for US involvement; and the simple matter that our entire investment in the region was based on the nonsense domino theory about how all of Asia would fall to communism if Vietnam were allowed to fall, meaning the whole affair comes down to neo-imperialism and we had absolutely no fucking business getting involved in the first place.
Anyhow. Anywho. Anyway. Why the unwieldy history lesson on McNamara’s mistakes and possible war crimes in Vietnam when we’re supposed to be talking Errol Morris’ documentary on the man’s life, The Fog of War?
To put it bluntly, it is because you will not find much of this information in The Fog of War. Originally conceived as an entry in the documentary’s television interview program First Person, a planned hour-long interview spilled into eight hours, then a further eight hours the next day, with yet further still material filmed over the following months as Morris and McNamara took deep fascination in one another as interviewer and subject. Conducted using Morris’ Interrotron set-up, whereby teleprompters are projected onto two-way mirrors so participants can face their partner and the camera alike without losing the immediacy of a direct gaze, the film is intended as a detailed, up-close portrait of one of the American 20th century’s most controversial figures, and as such it is structured to give McNamara a great deal of control over conversational topics and their direction. Material filmed for the documentary is of McNamara to near exclusion, recording his image and his voice above all else, leaving Morris an invisible presence on the other side of the camera outside a few occasions when he prompts McNamara to stay on track or follow a new line. We are here to follow a wandering, temporally-unmoored portrait of his life, such that we might understand his person and the eleven lessons about warfare drawn from his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. It’s plain to see Morris wants to put you right there in the room with McNamara, face the man who best embodies Dylan’s “Masters of War,” really, properly grapple with the contrast between the image of a man who orchestrated one of the grand military catastrophes and the reality of a man who deeply regrets his involvement, a man who wants to ensure what he caused can never happen again.
I cannot say the film succeeds in its task, for Morris seems all too willing to undermine his most effective technique in the name of playing the film to the expectations of a conventional documentary. While material made FOR the film is almost all McNamara, the vast majority of what we actually SEE in The Fog of War is montaged relevant stock footage, rapidly flashed photographs, representative illustrations of the man’s points and metaphors as he makes them, all of which keep us away from the enclosed room and close contact with our subject for long, long stretches of time. Certain instances are impactful like nothing else — a sequence in which McNamara describes his approach to calculating damage from the WWII firebombing campaigns by comparing the devastation to Japanese cities to the equivalent American cities, over a montage of said American towns and cities fading into the ruins of Japanese settlements with the percentages flashing onscreen, increasing in pace as we go until it’s a parade of death and suffering. Certain other instances are understandable for setting the scene, a tactic I’m no stranger to throughout this series, and cannot condemn out of hand. Most, however, feel an exercise in polish over truth, in the same way the all-pervading edits to footage of McNamara’s answers feels dishonest. With the sheer number of jump cuts to cover what were surely stammers, pauses, walkbacks, any number of conversational faux pas, it makes one think any impression of McNamara as remarkably well-spoken and cognizant for his age is attributable only to a clever editor, and further contributes to a feeling the film doesn’t want to leave you alone with the unvarnished, raw subject longer than allowable.
What really sets my teeth on edge about The Fog of War, though, is McNamara himself. As mentioned, he tends towards a self-flattery by positing his anecdotes as examples of grand lessons about the nature of warfare, big ideas like MAXIMIZE EFFICIANCY, GET THE DATA, YOU MAY HAVE TO DO EVIL TO DO GOOD, YOU CAN’T CHANGE HUMAN NATURE. There’s a lot of talk about the matters which informed his life prior to his time as Secretary of Defense, his other policy decisions and political challenges in the course of serving said position, the Cuban Missile Crisis naturally, even a good deal about his life following his resignation, all these life events as backdrop for his lessons about war… but for the longest time, whenever the conversation threatens to approach the Vietnam War, the black mar on McNamara’s legacy, he flees to another topic, or downplays its importance. When Morris finally convinces him to openly discuss his policies and strategies and mistakes regarding Vietnam, McNamara falls back on the old politician’s tactics, insisting he doesn’t remember who did what or what happened when, claiming a nebulous other was responsible for actions largely attributable to him, blaming the nature of the chain of command for calls he personally made, weaseling out of anything definitive other than claiming the war was winnable if only he better understood the Vietnamese people and how they viewed the conflict. Specifics slip the cracks, platitudes take their place, and the guilty man who spent his final years on Earth making sure everyone knew he felt guilty and wanted to be a healer proves himself largely, if not totally incapable of confessing to and atoning for what he did by directly describing what he did, why he did it, and admitting in proper detail why it was wrong. “I wasn’t smart enough about peering into these people’s minds and intuiting how best to kill and demoralize them,” doesn’t cut it when your boo-boo is the goddamned Vietnam War.
It is understandable why the film plays the way it does. Men accustomed to wielding such power and influence are well-versed in avoidance, the art of saving their neck even when the possibility anyone might put them on the chopping block for their actions is long gone. The act of such avoidance can prove fascinating in itself, and in flattering McNamara by allowing him such control over the film’s structure and contents and perspective on Vietnam, I can see Morris making a try for a view on Robert McNamara that leaves judgement to the viewer. You know there’s evil here, I know there’s evil here, McNamara knows there’s evil here, but he will not cop to it, so all we can do is watch and look for the creaking seams in his person. Respectable in theory, yet as I’ve already noted, Morris cuts from the close-quarters necessary for this confrontation too often to make it take, and his excursions into stock footage and historical context do absolutely nothing to challenge McNamara’s own view of his actions and legacy. A viewer less inclined to crash course their way through the history of the Vietnam War and McNamara’s role in the United States’ involvement might walk away from all this dodging and hemming and hawing and meaningful gazes into the distance while half-whispering about how we must all say, “Never again,” and think there is here a man innocent of wrongdoing, a man who got in over his head, a man who has been unfairly blamed for what those around him did. An uninformed viewer might come away positive on McNamara, when regardless the difficulties he faced and the pressures he felt, the calls always came down to him. Regardless his rejection of nuclear policies started under Truman and continued under Eisenhower, when you’re playing with THAT kind of power, with all that influence over the lives of millions of people, and you misuse it to such a horrifying degree, one mantra from those men remains true: the buck has to stop HERE.
There is one passage in The Fog of War wherein I admire McNamara for his reflection and honesty, related to the firebombings montage, insofar as such admiration can go. Once it is finished, and we have made our way through the double capper of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McNamara notes how he and the other men who orchestrated the bombings would likely have been charged and tried as war criminals had the United States lost the war. The only reason he was allowed to walk free after improving the efficiency of a campaign which killed God knows how many women and children is because his country came out on top, and he wonders aloud why something should be moral if you win and immoral if you lose. It is a remarkably mature and self-condemning statement, made all the moreso by its conspicuous lack of a return when discussing Vietnam. If all the above bullet-pointed crimes constitute anything approaching the evil of dropping fire on civilians because you believed them fanatics who would’ve died fighting for their country regardless, if sending badly equipped men to fight in a harsh environment against an enemy they were not trained to handle in the midst of reckless bombing and a cancer-inducing agent while lying to their families about why they were fighting and how soon they could come home equals a drop of the amorality in dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, then there is no reason Robert McNamara should have slept a night as a free man in his life or had the opportunity to flatter and polish his legacy in an Errol Morris documentary, save that morality IS wrongfully flexible for not only the victors but the sufficiently powerful losers, and corruption deeply rooted enough we honor and glorify even the architects of a longstanding national shame given enough time.
One CAN draw ample value from The Fog of War. It would not receive such consistent acclaim on its own or amongst Morris’ long string of insightful documentaries otherwise. To watch Robert S. McNamara reveal so much of himself while revealing nothing about his deepest shame that cannot double as defense or justification can prove worthwhile, even fascinating to see him placed amongst the century of history he lived through and influenced as Morris draws upon a vast wealth of period footage. With a particular mindset, one can find a portrait of a man in the absence, truth in the gaps, more said about McNamara’s character and men of his kind, whose time in the spotlight is spent at equal turns lurking in the shadows, by what he refuses to share than all the confessions and tears and platitudes could ever reveal in their totality. From where I sit, more than a decade after McNamara’s death and a year out from this film’s induction into the National Film Register, I still must say this is not adequate — there are facts about McNamara and his record as Secretary of Defense, the things he did and allowed in the course of the Vietnam War, which are not present in The Fog of War, and to leave these matters unspoken and McNamara’s claims unchallenged if the goal is to paint with both the uncomfortable closeness of the Interrotron and the parade of relevant footage alike is to engage in irresponsibility towards your audience. There is no need to out and call McNamara a war criminal as I do here; merely ensuring all facts are on the table would be sufficient, and as those facts are not present, I can only declare The Fog of War a compromised documentary.
And here we are. After numerous delays thanks to my forever shaky physical and mental health, we have covered all 25 films inducted into the National Film Registry in 2019! Next article will be a retrospective on the class, and afterwards we’ll take our dive into the class of 2020, hopefully on a proper regular basis again! See you lot on the other side!