> Volume 6 > Number 09


Errol Morris

Robert McNamara

Release: 19 Dec. 03

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara


Robert Strange McNamara isn’t necessarily a popular person today, though that isn’t terribly surprising for a man whose career peak, as Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy, was still joined by ridicule for his statistical way of running the Pentagon (one politico called him an “IBM Machine with legs”). Yes, he is still the man who authorized much of the Vietnam War and prepared some of the firebombing of Japan in World War II, but in his many other capacities -- president of the Ford Motor Company and head of the World Bank -- and his cool head during the Cuban Missile Crisis have been neglected in history books. Donald Rumsfeld should take note.

His 1995 autobiography, In Retrospect, was originally considered a mea culpa, even if it was ultimately just a declaration of McNamara’s own disappointments and a reminder of his achievements. Now his documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, struggles to do the same. Under the guidance of Errol Morris, an antiwar advocate who has proven to be one of the finest documentary filmmakers working today, McNamara is forced to explain himself at levels that weren’t found in the printed memoir. Morris, heretofore establishing himself as a first-person interviewer who is barely present in the final cuts of his films, felt the need while editing The Fog of War to include some of his interjections to McNamara during the four interviews they had together. In his voice, which, because of the way Morris films these interviews, is muffled by being in a different room than McNamara, is the reticence of an incredulous opponent of the Vietnam War. He is clearly perusing the questions about entering this war that has bothered him for decades, but his nerves are more frazzled than the way he’s dealt with previous subjects ranging from Stephen Hawking to owners of beloved pets, from an execution device maven to the psychopath who’s gotten away with murder. McNamara changed the course of history, and we, like Morris, are just struggling to figure out how, why, and if any of it was honorable.

McNamara remembers hardliner Gen. Curtis LeMay, following their firebombing of 67 targets in Japan which destroyed huge chunks of these wooden cities (Morris presents them as statistics of destruction and their comparably sized American counterparts), finding humor in the immoral behavior they’d taken part in: “LeMay said if we’d lost the war, we’d all be prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara makes a good point, bothered by the repercussions of their actions, “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not immoral if you win?”

Ultimately, McNamara doesn’t as much apologize as didactically pose rhetorical questions to ascertain how war is fought in modern times. Too much, I think, will be made of the film in relation to Gulf War II, although its overriding purpose seems built on the explanation of war planning as a way of physical and moral destruction. It’s as much about the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Russo-Afghani War, and the Gulf Wars, even the vague War on Terror. His eleven lessons may be considered required reading/viewing for any world leader contemplating war, but his life says so much more. Even if his innovation of the seatbelt saved more lives than those lost in wars under his authority, Robert McNamara will be forever remembered in history books as an unpunished war criminal. His mea culpa, while eloquent and compelling, comes too late

©2004, David Perry,, 27 February 2004