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The Fog of War
by Carla Freccero
Aired March 15, 2004


Errol Morris's Academy Award winning documentary, The Fog of War,
is playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. This is a film for American baby boomers and those of us who came of age just after.  >From World War II and the fire bombing of Japan, to the Cuban Missile crisis, to Vietnam, through two administrations (Kennedy and Johnson), former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara delivers a kind of soliloquy on war, interrupted only occasionally by Morris's questions.  The movie is divided into 11 "lessons," the names of which act as refrains punctuating the memories and images of several decades in American military and political history. There is McNamara's talking head, film footage, video, news, stills, a whole collage of images and commentary that will be eerily and hauntingly familiar to some and eye-opening to others.

McNamara is an incredibly fit and lucid eighty-five year old in the movie; his gaze is intense and his words seem thoughtful, deliberate, articulated as he thinks, rather than pre-packaged. I couldn't help being in awe of the man's eloquence and intelligence, and I couldn't imagine Donald Rumsfeld in his place. It made me bitterly nostalgic for an era that was every bit as terrible as ours but seems, in retrospect, to have been managed by more thoughtful people.  But I guess that's cause for even greater horror, since even intelligence and reason did not save us from committing acts of atrocity on a mass scale. One of the lessons is titled, "Rationality will not save us." Indeed.

Many have criticized the film for not forcing an apology from McNamara. It's true, he does not apologize.  And yes, the movie is also carefully controlled by him, in a way: he only talks about what he wants to talk about, and one has the sense that he is ever the strategist, careful, measured, loyal beyond understanding, except for what he has to say about General Curtis LeMay, and even then it's said with a certain admiration. There are moments when it looks like he's about to crack, usually when something touches upon his family, or when he remembers the reputation he suffered and his necessary silence through it all.

But we never get to see beyond the briefest watering of an eye; McNamara recovers quickly or the camera cuts off abruptly, and we move on. But what we get here is a rare opportunity to hear from someone inside the war machine, and it's better than an apology because of its hard-nosed honesty and stark vision of just what it means to be a man in the company of men who organize killing. It helps one understand, not to empathize, not at all, but to know, really know, how some of these decisions are made.

For those who were not alive or old enough to remember the details, the Cuban Missile crisis is perhaps the best and most thoroughly explained chapter in American history presented in this documentary.  The facts about the bombing of Japan are extraordinary for how they drive home just how superfluous the dropping of the atomic bombs were. As for Vietnam, I was unsatisfied. I wanted more detail, more facts, more information. McNamara made it sound as though so much of it boiled down to a misunderstanding, with the Vietnamese defending themselves against and Imperial power (the US), and the US staving off yet another Cold War threat. Watching the sequence of political events unfold, one is even more flabbergasted that Johnson could have thought that a draft might be the way to win this war.

This is a documentary that will leave most of its audiences unsatisfied.  That is how it should be, suggests McNamara, who insists that humans have not yet grasped the import of their mass killing capacity and have not yet come to terms with the question of whether a war should or should not, can or cannot, be conducted according to ethical principles. He also makes it clear just how little we, the people, knew about what went on behind the scenes and in the war room. He doesn't reveal it to us either.  For this reason, and because the moment in history he documents is a profoundly disturbing one, The Fog of War is bound to leave you deeply uneasy. As it should. 

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.