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The fog of words
Errol Morris and Robert McNamara make peace in War
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Directed by Errol Morris. With Robert S. McNamara. A Sony Pictures Classics release (106 minutes). At the Kendall Square and in the suburbs.

Movies can recapture the past, and they can re-create the processes of memory. Somewhere between the two lies the truth, perhaps, and in his seductive (credit Philip Glass and superb editing), ambitious, but oddly timid new film, Errol Morris takes aim at that elusive middle ground.

The Fog of War breaks down into 11 "lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara," and from the beginning, the former Secretary of Defense (1960-1967) and reputed architect of the Vietnam War tries to assume the role of schoolmaster, giving the off-screen Morris directions on how to shoot a scene in a way that mirrors his tactics in a Vietnam-era press conference shown in an archival snippet just before). At last, the disembodied voice of the director cuts him short.

But the next shots are footage of the Gulf of Tonkin incident as re-created a week and a half afterward by the Navy (a fabrication unremarked by Morris in the film, though he has acknowledged it in subsequent interviews). These are phony images designed to support the big lie of North Vietnamese aggression that led to nearly 10 more years of futile war and the loss of 50,000 American lives. Shouldn’t the viewer know that the footage is phony? Or is Morris so intent in re-creating the fog of war and the even more deceptive fog of self-serving memory that he’s abandoned efforts to recapture the past or approach the truth? One wonders how much more of the archival evidence (tape recordings of conversations with Lyndon Johnson do support McNamara’s contention that he was opposed to escalation) has been tampered with or edited to argue a particular point of view or guarantee ambiguity.

But then, McNamara is a military thinker whose tactics have burned to death 100,000 persons, almost all civilians, in a single evening. So 50,000 dead (or three million, if you include Vietnamese casualties) over a decade is a drop in the bucket. Perhaps the most revelatory part of the film deals with his work with the Air Force during World War II ("Lesson #3: There is something beyond yourself"). Working with Colonel Curtis ("Bombs Away") LeMay in Europe, he and his staff determined that a large percentage of "aborted" bomber missions were "baloney," pilots and crews turning back because of a legitimate fear of death. LeMay quickly took draconian measures to ensure this no longer happened. I wonder what characters he and McNamara might have inspired in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Relocated to the Pacific, LeMay and McNamara worked out the details of the firebombing campaign against the Japanese population. About a million persons were killed, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "LeMay said if we lost the war, we’d all be prosecuted as war criminals," says McNamara, still looking a little dazed at that possibility. "He and I were behaving as war criminals."

That’s "Lesson #4: Maximize Efficiency." The amazing thing is that when McNamara makes such statements, the last thing you would believe is that he is a war criminal. He plays the camera with a boyish charm and a seeming candor (he received a vote in the last National Society of Film Critics meeting for Best Actor) that disarm almost every irony. In this, he is abetted by Morris, who lets pass unchallenged McNamara’s suggestion that everyone makes mistakes that cost few dozen or a hundred thousand lives. Those are mistakes you can learn from, he says. The important thing is to avoid the mistake that will end the world, as he and the Kennedy administration did in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (though as he later admits in "Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us," it was all pretty much blind luck).

Then there’s those lesson titles. Are they ironic or what? If so, they don’t so much undercut his credibility as add to his appeal. Each "lesson" derives from some catch phrase or conclusion McNamara utters that he has "learned" from his life. Often, though, a corollary uttered in the same "lesson" is more pertinent. Such as "Lesson #11: You Can’t Change Human Nature." Just after proclaiming that bromide, he adds, almost as a non-sequitur, "Never answer the question you’re asked. Only answer the question you wish you were asked."

Too bad Morris didn’t take that lesson to heart. I kept hoping he would ask McNamara about the relevance of his Vietnam experience to the present situation in Iraq. As it is, the Bush Administration seems to be taking to heart only his most sinister lessons ("Lesson #9: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil") and ignoring those that offer any hope (e.g., "Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy"). As for the rest of us, probably the lesson to be learned is not to trust any of them, politicians and filmmakers alike.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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