By Jeffrey M. Anderson
No one knows why we were there, not exactly. At least not to the point that anyone can explain why so many had to die and why Americans had to watch the count climb ever higher every evening on TV for years. If any one person was behind it all -- could conceivably be blamed for it all -- it's Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy and later under President Johnson. Now Errol Morris -- arguably the greatest living documentary filmmaker and the man behind such works as The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Mr. Death -- points his camera at McNamara in an effort to understand the Vietnam War.
Though we rarely hear his voice and never see his face, Morris is a canny interviewer. And, while on camera, McNamara is an experienced and squirrelly interviewee. At one point the 85 year-old says "never answer the question that has been asked of you; answer the question you wish had been asked of you." Add this to the fact that the reasons behind the war prove to be an exceedingly complex question. Morris never gets anywhere near a basic explanation, nor anything resembling an apology as many might expect. What he does get is a breakdown of how human emotions, fears, rationality and violence combine to contribute to an inconceivably huge and convoluted picture.
Easily the most visual of documentary filmmakers, Morris fills out The Fog of War with his trademark images, beginning with the many skewed and crooked angles on McNamara himself -- as if even the camera could not get a grasp on the elusive nature of this topic. Next Morris intersperses the film with fascinating and sometimes downright kooky stock footage and "illustrations" (such as toppling dominos). Finally, he layers Philip Glass's ominous, pulsing score throughout, giving the film a tense, emotional drive.
Morris categorizes McNamara's responses into eleven sometimes-contradictory "lessons," beginning with "Empathize With Your Enemy" and "Rationality Will Not Save Us" and wrapping up with "You Can't Change Human Nature." These contradictions are further enhanced when we take into account McNamara's childhood enthusiasm for President Wilson, who called WWI "the war to end all wars." How wonderful it would have been to think that the human mind could not possibly conceive of anything worse.
The film also takes time to explore McNamara's extraordinary career: serving (ironically) in World War II, subsequently becoming president of the Ford Motor Company and helping implement seat belts and other safety features. From there he received an offer from JFK to become the youngest ever Secretary of Defense.
McNamara describes his version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, explaining that their victory was really nothing more than good timing and luck. After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson kept McNamara in the same position and, remarkably, recorded several telephone conversations about Vietnam that Morris uses in the film. It's revealed that Kennedy and Johnson had two very different takes on the war and that McNamara simply wished to serve his president. Nevertheless, in 1967 Johnson "fired" him, and he left to become President of The World Bank.
Overall, The Fog of War could just as easily tell the tale of the current Iraq situation as well as that of WWII, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Vietnam. Morris and McNamara prefer a certain analytical distance to their storytelling, looking at the events as a series of comparisons and what-ifs.
McNamara quotes Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay as saying that if we'd lost WWII, we would be tried as war criminals. Most effectively, McNamara reads a list of Japanese cities destroyed in WWII and a comparable list of American cities roughly the same size and population. One of the biggest questions is: how do we justify so much death?
These days McNamara seems to understand better than anyone how human beings as a whole can no sooner avoid war than they can avoid breathing. The film leaves off with that frightening sentiment: that it can happen again and it may be happening now. Like the scorpion that stung the frog while crossing the river -- dooming them both -- it's in our nature.