My narrative and management class ended with The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s 2003 Academy Award winning documentary based on a personal and wide-ranging interview with an elderly Robert McNamara, US Defense Secretary from 1961 to 1968. It is my practice to watch the movies we discuss in class the morning of class. Regardless how many times I’ve seen a movie, watching it just before class sharpens its images and sometimes gives me new insights.
I watch a movie primarily from the standpoint of the world as it was when the movie was made. But sometimes there are aspects of a movie that inexorably become relevant to the current context. So it was with The Fog of War, which was made 15 years ago.
Reflecting on the Vietnam War, McNamara said ““none of our allies supported [the war in Vietnam] … if we [the US] can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our case, we’d better re-examine our thinking.” McNamara cited Britain, Germany, and France, but could certainly have included Canada. In 2017 this advice becomes relevant to an administration that has withdrawn from the Paris Accord and the Transpacific Partnership, announced its intent to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and is threatening to terminate NAFTA. The Trump Administration has systematically alienating democratic nations with comparable values, while embracing dictators and autocrats.
McNamara was deeply engaged with the issue of nuclear war, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the conclusions he drew was that “the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations … is it right and proper that today there are over 2500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads that are on 15 minute alert to be launched by the decision of one human being?” Now the human being in the US who has the authority to launch nuclear weapons is more fallible than McNamara ever could have imagined. McNamara’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis put great emphasis on the assertion of civilian control over the Joint Chiefs of Staff, particularly General Curtis LeMay, who were spoiling to bomb and/or avoid Cuba. Today, the roles have been reversed, and people hope that level-headed military leaders can control a megalomaniacal president.
A final theme of The Fog of War was McNamara’s attempt to come to terms with his personal failure of serving as the civilian strategist for the Vietnam War. The movie shows a seventyish McNamara trying to understand the enemy’s perspective by meeting the North Vietnamese leaders during the war. And, in his mid-eighties, McNamara’s troubled and sometimes contradictory responses to Morris’s questions epitomized the narratological concept of the unreliable narrator. McNamara’s discomfiture brought to mind the men who have been brought low in recent weeks and months over charges of sexual abuse and harassment: Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Charley Rose, and James Levine.
I cannot help but wondering how much of the remainder of their lives will be spent in the same sort of lacerating introspection that Robert McNamara could not escape. To varying degrees, they deserve it.