Sony Pictures, 2003, 107 minutes
The Fog of War was released in December 2003, and I missed the film when it briefly hit the theaters. I had forgotten about this documentary, was directed by Errol Morris, until I came across it this evening at the public library.
The film intersperses interviews with Robert S. McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense who some have called the "architect of the Vietnam War." Certainly there is an element on the part of McNamara to spin his role in the war, but one gets the sense in watching this film that McNamara made good faith (though unsuccessful) efforts to steer President Lyndon Johnson away from escalating the war.
Yet the conflicted McNamara provides innumerable insights beyond the eleven titular lessons, and I found myself both sympathetic to and repulsed by the former Secretary of Defense. McNamara could be simultaneously idealistic and coldly calculating, and his unwillingness to answer direct questions about his role in certain aspects of the Vietnam War demonstrates that the elderly statesman remains first and foremost a politician.
Why, one asks, if McNamara was so set against the war did he supervise its escalation for over three years? True, he penned a controversial 1967 policy memorandum to Johnson calling for a change in strategy, but how did McNamara live with the blood on his hands if he is as "sensitive" as he described himself?
I have to admit that I am at best only a casual student of the Vietnam War, and my perspective is one that is based upon growing up during the conflict, my childhood television programs briefly interrupted by the likes of Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner with news reports. I left The Fog of War with a greater understanding of how the war began, but I remain largely ignorant of why Johnson, McNamara, and associates allowed the United States to get dragged into what was essentially a civil war in post-colonial Vietnam, at least beyond McNamara's insistence upon a sort of Cold War, domino theory paranoia.
Perhaps, though, the most important lesson McNamara can offer us in the film is that rational actions based upon irrational assumptions or inaccurate information can bring great harm to the geopolitical interests of the United States and - more importantly - to the lives of American soldiers and foreign civilians.
Find the film, watch the film, and take to heart the lessons McNamara imparts. The former Secretary might be spinning yarns to save his legacy (or soul), but the look inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is alone worth the 107 minutes of your time.