Watching The Fog of War in 2017

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 In 2017 this advice becomes relevant to an administration that has withdrawn from the Paris Accord and the Transpacific Partnership, announced its intent to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and is threatening to terminate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.




  1. There really wasn’t a lot of fog of war in 1967 during the Vietnam war. The fog was the result of the poor way the news media portrayed the war and the population that just went along.
    After graduating from U of A in January 1967 I joined the Arizona national guard and was sent to Fort Ord for basic training. There I met another private in my barracks who had just graduated from Berkley. He had just finished a course on Vietnam history. We became friends and he told me the history of Vietnam and US involvement. I just remember me saying over and over, “where did you read that. I never heard that.” He told me when you get out, on your drive back to LA, stop in Berkeley and go into any one of the book stores on Telegraph Road. They all have a large section of Vietnam books. In May of ’67 I did just that. I bought about 7 books written by some prominent history professors. Those books enlightened me such that I had a hard time dealing with military people in the Guard and my civilian job. Fortunately my Guard unit was never activated. I would have to make a very hard moral decision. I did quit my job at Lockeed Corp in Burbank.
    The Pentagon Papers were not published until 1971, to a big fanfare. But what happened as a result of the release? Not much! Nixon was re-elected the next year and the politicians kept the war going till Saigon fell in April 1975. The “Papers” contained not much more than what I read in my books in 1967. The information on the war was always there for politicians and the media but the powers at that time had a different agenda and pushed thru, ignoring all of it. But WHY is the real question. What is wrong with our democracy? Does nothing change? Rinse and repeat? Was Eisenhower right? Do we really have a oligarchy. When the one percent own everything will they then be happy? Does short term greed rule? NOW is the time everyone should looking for answers to these questions.

  2. I liked this review of one of my favorite documentaries. Sandford’s final statement — that ‘to varying degrees, they deserve” their exile and self-lacerating doubts — is fair enough. But I think McNamara did about as much as any human can possibly do to come to terms with his grievous misjudgements and their consequences. His meetings with the Cubans and the Vietnamese, his writing, and this movie are the evidence.

    I was an opponent of the Vietnam war. For several years I devoted my life to working against it, at some cost. But I admire McNamara, or anyone with the courage to admit being terribly wrong, and to then cooly inventory both the reasons leading to and the consequences flowing from that wrongheadedness.

    It’s clearly better to have been right, but honesty about being wrong may take more courage. At least a few will applaud you for the truth, if only when it’s safe to do so. But confessing your errors moves your enemies to contempt, and former allies to real hatred. Their verdict is unlikely to ever change. McNamara had real intellectual courage — a very rare quality.

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