Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Fog of War: A Film Review

"War is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables," says Robert S. McNamara. "Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily."

In Errol Morris' documentary film The Fog of War, we hear the reflections of Robert S. McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense. The film is the result of a prolonged interview Morris conducted with McNamara, interspersed throughout with archival footage and recordings of White House Cabinet conversations. The film provides an insightful glimpse of the life of McNamara as he expounds upon his life: from his earliest memory at the age of two of the celebrations in the streets at the end of World War I, his years at the university of Berkely studying Ethics and Logic, his academic career at Harvard, his three years in the air force serving under General Curtis LeMay during World War II, and his years as the president of the Ford Motor Company. McNamara also reflects on his experiences as an advisor to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and his subsequent departure from government following his privately-expressed dissent to Lyndon B. Johnson of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The Fog of War is a documentary that adopts a boldly unique approach, in that it is a documentary that interviews a single individual and looks at the life of the 20th century solely through his eyes. It allows one of the most controversial and influential political figures of the 20th century to reflect on his life and times. This film shows a man going back over his life, trying to figure out whether he was a good man or a bad man. Robert S. McNamara's life story is depicted here as a constant friction between his strong belief in rationality and the things he has experienced.

This is a film about a control freak. The first scenes are very telling glimpses of his rationality-driven personality, of a man who wants to be in control. In the opening scene we see him controlling a press conference in 1964. In this opening scene, we are presented with a picture of McNamara as a man eager to be accommodating, long before the cameras are supposed to be rolling. "Do you want it lowered?" he asks about a map he has displayed for use in his conference. "Let me ask the TV first: are you ready? All set?" In the very act of appearing to be helpful, it is also a subtle performance on McNamara's part to structure the relationship between himself and his interrogators on his own terms.

Yet, throughout the course of this film, this rationality-driven man who wants to be in control of the situations that beset him relates stories about a world spiraling out of control. And it is in this respect that the film's title becomes meaningful. The Fog of War denotes the uncertainty in the battlefield during the fighting.

Director Errol Morris provides his own discourse on the life reflections of McNamara by structuring his film to comprise eleven lessons based on McNamara's own statements in the interview. These eleven lessons compose the overall body and statement of the film. They are Morris' personal commentary on McNamara's reflections. These eleven lessons include:

1. Empathize with your enemies
We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.

2. Rationality will not save us
I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.

The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are on 15 minute alert, to be launched by the decision of one human being?

3. There's something beyond one's self
I took more philosophy classes, particularly one in Logic and one in Ethics. Stress on values and something beyond one's self, and a responsibility to society.

4. Maximize efficiency
The U.S. Air Force had a new airplane named the B—29. The B—17s and B—24s in Europe bombed from 15,000, 16,000 feet. The problem was they were subject to anti—aircraft fire and to fighter aircraft. To relieve that, this B—29 was being developed that bombed from high altitude and it was thought we could destroy targets much more efficiently and effectively.

We had so little training on this problem of maximizing efficiency, we actually found to get some of the B—29s back instead of offloading fuel, they had to take it on. To make a long story short, it wasn't worth a damn. And it was LeMay who really came to that conclusion, and led the Chiefs to move the whole thing to the Marianas, which devastated Japan.

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command.

Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.

6. Get the data
In a crash, the driver was often impaled on the steering wheel. The passenger was often injured because he'd hit the windshield or the header bar or the instrument panel. So, in the 1956 model Ford we introduced steering wheels that prevented being impaled; we introduced padded instrument panels; and, we introduced seatbelts. We estimated if there would be 100% use of the seatbelts, we could save twenty odd thousand lives a year. Everybody was opposed to it. You couldn't get people to use seatbelts, but those who did saved their lives.

Now let me jump ahead. It's July, 1960. John Bugas, vice—president, industrial relations, clearly had his eyes on becoming President. I'm the group vice—president in charge of all the car divisions. Henry was a night owl. He always wanted to go out on the town. You know, it's 2 AM or something or other. He said, 'Bob, come on up and have a nightcap.' I said, "Goddammit Henry I don't want a nightcap, I'm going to bed." John said, "I'll come up, Henry." Henry said, "I didn't ask you John, I asked Bob." He said, "Bob, come on up." So I finally went up. That's when he asked me to be president.

I was the first president of the company in the history of the company — that had ever been president other than a member of the Ford family. And after 5 weeks I quit. The telephone rang, a person comes on and says: "I'm Robert Kennedy. My brother, Jack Kennedy, would like you to meet our brother—in—law, Sargent Shriver." 4 o'clock Sarge comes in ? never met him. "I've been authorized by my brother—in—law, Jack Kennedy, to offer you the position of Secretary of the Treasury."

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong
Ultimately, President Johnson authorized bombing in response to what he thought had been the second attack. It hadn't occurred but that's irrelevant to the point I'm making here. He authorized the attack on the assumption it had occurred, and his belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication they would not stop short of winning.

We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs. We see incorrectly or we see only half of the story at times.

Belief and seeing, they're both often wrong.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.

I remember reading that General Sherman in the Civil War, the mayor of Atlanta pleaded with him to save the city. And Sherman essentially said to the mayor just before he torched it and burned it down: "War is cruel. War is cruelty." That was the way LeMay felt. He was trying to save the country. He was trying to save our nation. And in the process, he was prepared to do whatever killing was necessary. It's a very, very difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in. Morrison was one of those. I think I was.

10. Never say never
Historians don't really like to deal with counterfactuals, with what might have been. They want to talk about history. "And how the hell do you know, McNamara, what might have been? Who knows?" Well, I know certain things.

What I'm doing is thinking through with hindsight, but you don't have hindsight available at the time. I'm very proud of my accomplishments, and I'm very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I've made errors.

11. You can't change human nature
Wilson said: "We won the war to end all wars." I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.

Although many viewers do not notice it, Morris' eleven lessons are intended to be ironic commentaries. Take lesson #6 for example: what if the "data we get" is wrong? "Maximize efficiency" - what if the end result of our efficiency is 100,000 deaths in one night from napalm? And what of the last lesson, which states "You can't change human nature"? Does this tell us that perhaps the previous ten lessons are inherently meaningless?

This film is very meaningful, and spellbindingly so. The issues it brings up are very relevant to our current world. For example, while the current relations between the United States and Iraq are not identical to Vietnam in the 1960s, many of the mistakes we made in Vietnam are now being played out in Iraq. Thus, this film asks a very important and profound question that all viewers should seriously consider. Can we learn from our mistakes? Can we learn from history to avoid it repeating itself? The 20th century was defined by war, and we are in grave danger of repeating that trend here in the 21st century if we fail to regard the examples of history.

What is acutely frightening in our modern day and age is that we have a government that does not look at the big picture and often fails to see current issues in the light of context. Our government is one that views everything in black and white, good and evil. Nothing could be more dangerous and harmful for a country. We desperately need to start considering the complexities and the subtleties. This film is valuable because it stresses the urgent importance of discussion, rather than blind reactionary measures that are often based on error and misunderstanding.