Dec 17, 2007

DVD Review: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamaraSony 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.


mud_rake said...

I wonder, Mike, if the average Joe actually cares about our sordid history of warmongering. We've been so brainwashed that I believe Americans don't even think about war and more; they are moe interested in their dire, personal economic situation. This impacts their day-to-day life more than some distant war.

MP said...

We live in a growing culture of stupidity. The stupidity is fed by big things exploding in a faraway place.

What's not to understand about why Americans don't even think about the war anymore? They actually think it's cool.

Except me. I hate stupid America.

historymike said...

Mud Rake:

Very true: for most folks, war is too exhausting of a concept around which to wrap their minds, and it takes a fair amount work to stay informed.

Easier just to turn on the 50" plasma HD flat screen and veg out...

historymike said...


I think the stupidity is also a function of not knowing where to start larning, as well as feeling overwhelmed about one's own insignificance.

Agreed, though, that there are more than a few lunkheads whose first foreign policy option is something like "nuke all of the bastards."