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The Fog of War: Eleven lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara

January 3, 2009 by Leanne McRae

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara is Errol Morris' eighth film. He is a director who always manages to capture the most interesting and insightful characters of our culture on celluloid. His subject for The Fog of War is no different. Robert Strange McNamara has been at the forefront of industrial and government development and decision-making for over forty years. He lived through the depression, served as an intelligence analyst in World War Two, went on to be the first president appointed from outside the 'family' of the Ford Motor company, only to resign five weeks later when hand-picked to be President John F Kennedy's Secretary of Defence. McNamara was in the Cabinet room during the Cuban Missile Crisis and witnessed first hand the tensions and tenuousness of international politics. He administered the Vietnam War and was fired from his position as the Secretary of Defence when he disagreed with President Johnson over the direction of that conflict. McNamara then went on to be the President of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981.

The Fog of War delves into the impact McNamara has had on the world stage as a key player in some of the most significant moments in recent history. Morris does not celebrate nor demonise his subject. Rather, he constructs a consciousness of questioning around this figure that contrasts with the culture of secrecy, deception and dishonesty currently passing for political integrity amongst the US administration in particular. McNamara himself is an individual who considers carefully the role he played on the world stage. At the age of 85 this is a man who has thought long and hard about consequences, and how to live with them. Through the film he looks back over the decisions he made and the moments when he remained silent. Morris has intercut McNamara's narrative with archival material mapping the conversations and conflicts between himself and the White House. There is a sense of urgency about McNamara's delivery — he sees many serious mistakes being made by the very people who should have learnt from his.

The first lesson McNamara has to teach us is — empathize with your enemy. Bush & Co's construction of the Arab world as a terrorist strong-hold and barbarian culture distinctly demonises these people. The rhetoric affirming that nations are either 'with or against' the United States of America moves individuals away from any sense of understanding, dividing and entrenching differences. McNamara weighs heavily on the need for nuance and negotiation in conflict. His experiences in the Cabinet room during the Cuban Missile Crisis have taught him this. He remains astounded that intelligent, rational men came so close to nuclear annihilation. Without romanticising Kennedy and his advisors, one fears how Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld would have handled Castro and Khrushchev.

Shadowing McNamara's narrative is the overbearing figure of General Curtis LeMay who McNamara served under during World War Two. It was him, with McNamara's assistance as an analyst that choreographed the firebombing of Tokyo and much of Japan killing over 100,000 people in the months before the atomic apocalypse in that country. Similarly, LeMay was a strong advocate for destroying Cuba and Castro rather than negotiate with Khrushchev. But McNamara does not use LeMay to displace his own responsibility for these events and decisions. McNamara remains deeply troubled by his participation in Japan. Rather, he uses LeMay to demonstrate the military mind and the potential consequences for leaving this mentality unchecked.

Curiously absent from his monologue are McNamara's wife and family. He briefly mentions is courtship and marriage, but then refuses to elaborate on how they responded to his career, except to say, with a distinctly uncompromising tone, that the pressure may have ultimately killed his wife. He enthusiastically affirms that his term at the Pentagon were the best years of their lives. I suspect that these years were the best of his life, and that it was a markedly different story on the home-front. Once again the women are written out of history. Their roles in maintaining an ordered and coherent home life to enable men the space and time to consider and activate larger issues are ignored. Morris does not press McNamara on these themes.

Morris's technique of applying the production values he mobilised in The Line Blue sits uneasily with his strategy of centralising an intimate relationship between McNamara and the viewers. It tends to be a little heavy handed at times — especially when McNamara makes such an engaging character. But perhaps this is needed. In times when the conservative consciousness validates sound-bite politics with catchphrases like "weapons of mass destruction", "war on terror", and "shock and awe", perhaps McNamara's ultimate lesson is the need for intelligent debate and critical consciousness. Lesson number eight is "be prepared to re-examine your reasoning". One wonders whether the current administrators have this courage and whether they will be able to look back over their own lives with the same sensitivity as Robert S McNamara.