The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 documentary film by Errol Morris. Morris tells a 20th-century American story of a dreamer who rose from humble origins to the heights of political power. An idealist whose values were rooted in World War II attitudes and who raises moral questions about his own legacy, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
Fog of War is both a historical documentation of a primary insider’s perspective and a deep examination of the nature and limits of self-knowledge. The former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson is considered one of the chief architects of U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese Civil War, which makes him largely responsible for the needless deaths of many hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, civilians and soldiers. Even when he admits that war was a dreadful mistake years later, he does so in a way that avoids direct apologies and manages to make his enemies across the political spectrum hate him even more.
McNamara’s frankness allegedly took even Morris by surprise, particularly his admissions of his involvement in key conflicts such as the fire-bombing of 67 Japanese cities during World War II before the atomic bombs were dropped. The civilian body count started early in McNamara’s political career. Working under the ruthless military man Curtis LeMay during World War II, he helped plan the firebombing of Tokyo. Incinerating over 100,000 civilians, the death toll from the bombing was actually higher than that of the better remembered and more controversial dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
McNamara claims that, had the allies not won the war, he and General Curtis Le May might have been tried as war criminals. This is not surprising, the brutality of the air attacks on civilian cities was a unfortunate step backwards for humanity, and eventually led to over 7 million tons of bombs dropped by the US during the Vietnam War.
Later, as Secretary of Defense under JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he may have been critical in fighting his old boss, General LeMay, who by all accounts was hell bent on nuclear apocalypse. Thus, McNamara says he may have helped save the lives of each and every one of us. To this day, he remains deeply worried about the prospect of an “accidental” nuclear war that could still eradicate us all, and he agitates for disarmament.
There is nothing simple about Robert McNamara. He was thrust into a situation not many of us would know how to handle, the anxiety of nuclear war puts a lot of pressure on our world leaders. McNamara seems unable to publicly confront issues of his own responsibility.
In fact, one of the eleven “lessons” referred to in the film’s complete title is not to answer the question you are asked, but to answer the question you wish you were asked.
This was an excellent documentary exploring the life of one of Washington’s most controversial and complex politicians.