Robert McNamara's Mea Culpa

"Are you ready? All set?" In response to Errol Morris' offscreen query, Robert Strange McNamara sets his face and gazes into the Interrotron. He looks vaguely uncomfortable and also ready, but for what?

In The Fog of War, the 86-year-old McNamara talks about his life and career, a series of conversations with Morris edited into a seeming whole, such that the firebombing of Japan during WWII, the development of seatbelts, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the "quagmire" of the Vietnam War are related -- as historical and political events. This connectedness evolves as the film lays out the "11 lessons" of McNamara, each a section titled with an aphorism uttered by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense. For instance: "Empathize with your enemy," "Believing and seeing are both often wrong," "Proportionality should be a guideline in war," and "There's something beyond oneself."

The filmmaker says that he started thinking about this movie when he read McNamara's 1995 memoir, In Retrospect. As Morris puts it, the ostensible "mea culpa" so often attributed to the book seemed more complicated, less clear: "It's not so much an apology," Morris offers, "as an attempt to understand how he and many others blundered into a disastrous war." As comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the occupation of Iraq proliferate, the need for such understanding seems ever more urgent.

Though Morris initially wanted to find personal dimensions in the book's efforts to understand, to discover where McNamara saw himself in history, whether he might actually "feel" responsible or sorry. But the film is not quite that. Rather, it is a compelling meditation on human fallibility, tracing the many steps of a life and shifting set of beliefs in order to reach no fixed conclusions. To showcase such uncertainty might seem counterintuitive for a documentary. Consider that the film that made Errol Morris famous, 1988's The Thin Blue Line, reached a clear conclusion -- that the Dallas County, Texas justice system was wrong -- with the help of a confession to murder by interviewee David Harris.

Attention to that film's ending (and the real life effects it had, for the mistakenly convicted Randall Adams) obscured its focus on how perspective, judgment, and inevitable error influence fact, the ways that stories become truth. Morris' subsequent films -- A Brief History of Time (1991), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) -- have elaborated on this problem, revealing the layers of deception and desire that form their subjects' self-images. In other words, his movies display "something beyond oneself," multiple perspectives that arise from passing time, shifting situations, expanding contexts.

Just so The Fog of War, one of this year's most provocative, potent, and important films. Taking as its premise one of McNamara's assertions (listed here as number 11), that "You can't change human nature," the film also proposes that such "nature" is also, ironically, ever changing, at least in individual cases. (The broader drama has to do with the will to self-destruction demonstrated over centuries: are we fated to repeat mistakes eternally?) McNamara's roles in so many world-altering events of the 20th century grant him a singular viewpoint, that the documentary proceeds to fragment and rearrange. Composed of McNamara's exchanges with Morris (punctuated by the filmmaker's offscreen questions), archival footage, documents (to underline the man's interest in numbers and "data"), still photos, and taped conversations with Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (including examples of LBJ's notoriously "salty" language).

In his many positions -- Harvard assistant professor (1941), founding member of the U.S. Air Corps Statistical Control School in 1942, president of Ford Motor Company (for five weeks, during which time he attended to what he calls the U.S. desire for "conspicuous consumption"), Secretary of Defense (1961-1968, during which time he was accused of being an "IBM machine with legs"), and president of the World Bank (1968 to 1981) -- McNamara has participated in more than his share of "historic" events and negotiated with many famous figures, from Fidel Castro and General Curtis LeMay (under whom McNamara strategized to firebomb 67 Japanese cities, killing thousands of civilians), to Special Vietnam Advisor to Kennedy and Johnson Maxwell Taylor and North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap (who revealed to McNamara in 1995 that the Gulf of Tonkin attack that motivated Johnson to enter into the Vietnam War in 1964, did not happen).

"Have you ever been wrong?" asks Morris. "Sure," comes the answer, "On countless occasions." But he's not going to detail them. (He does offer, toward film's end, lesson number nine: "In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.") More revealingly, perhaps, is what McNamara points to as what he did "right," recalling his time at Berkeley, during the Depression, when he took a philosophy course that he thinks transformed his life. His arrival at a new understanding of "values" coincides here with his meeting Margaret Craig, which results in what McNamara calls a "marriage made in heaven" (though he later alludes to unspecific relationship difficulties during the Vietnam War).

Following this revelation as to ethics, McNamara serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force during WWII, reaching another conclusion, which the film deems lesson number four, "Maximize efficiency." The calculations involved in the decision to firebomb Japan (and thereafter, to use nuclear weapons) have to do with comparing numbers of possible U.S. soldiers' deaths to the supposedly lesser numbers of Japanese civilian deaths (here the film shows numerals dropping like bombs onto a map of Japan). McNamara repeatedly raises "counterfactuals," academic thought experiments about how history might have been different, as these support or challenge decisions already made. "The world has not really grappled with the rules of war," he notes, adding, "LeMay said if we'd lost the war, we'd all be persecuted as war criminals." The focus remains close on his face, though you're hearing voiceover rather than sync sound as he adds: "What makes it immoral if you lose, but not immoral if you win?"

McNamara's recollection of the Bay of Pigs raises related questions concerning the limits of knowledge, or, as it's termed in political and military circles, "intelligence." In 1992, he's informed by Castro that, contrary to CIA reports in 1961 that Cuba harbored no nuclear warheads, there were in fact 162 pointed at the U.S. "Such is the logic of war," he muses, if nations "clash like two blind moles, then mutual annihilation will commence." This thinking leads later to McNamara's indictment of U.S. unilateralism. "What makes us omniscient?" he asks. How can one administration, one point of view, or one presumption of moral ground, guarantee correct interpretation or action? Or, as he puts it concerning the Vietnam War, in language that surely resonates today, "None of our allies supported us. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning."

Though McNamara holds firm to his faith in rational thinking, he also admits that "reason has its limits," because of lack of empathy as much as lack of information. During wartime especially, "the human mind cannot comprehend all the variables," the inevitable misunderstandings and misreadings emerging from any engagement between cultures and sets of beliefs. When he says, "Any military commander who is honest will admit that he makes mistakes in the application of military power," he also acknowledges that it's rare for commanders to do so in public (see also: the current Bush administration's resistance to any such admission, ever, even as it "readjusts" policy).

The film doesn't posit judgment of the man or even his various contexts so much as it presents questions upon questions -- about history, inevitability, and intentionality. Is it possible to comprehend a situation apart from its moment and the personalities involved? Can any single view engender accurate assessment? And can debate after the fact help understanding or change the future? When Morris starts pressing for more specific answers, some admission of culpability or regret, McNamara pulls back: "I am not going to say any more than I have." Just how this reframes your reading of the film will depend on your own history.

Errol Morris may not have judged Mr. McNamara but you are invited to help judge the nominees for the Alties, AlterNet's Second Annual Alternative Movie Awards.

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