Fog of War
by Carla Freccero
Aired March 15, 2004
Errol Morris's Academy Award winning documentary, The Fog of
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
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.