BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
SWEEPING THE 2004 ACADEMY AWARD for Best Documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is ripe with insider information and moral reflection from one of America’s most influential and controversial political figures, Robert S. McNamara. Bursting with lucidity and vitality at the young age of 85, McNamara recalls his colorful life with gusto, including his seven years of service as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. He shares highlights from his humble beginnings, becoming a Harvard professor, the President of Ford Motor Company, and serving on President Kennedy’s Cabinet.
Assertively pointing his finger at the camera, the animated McNamara elucidates some of the little known strategies of WWII and the Cold War. We get a glimpse into the minds of decision makers like General Curtis LeMay. We learn how the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis came from a subordinate official who understood the mind of Khrushchev. And we gain insight into America’s misconceptions about defending Vietnam that almost brought the United States to ruin.
Veteran filmmaker Errol Morris interviewed McNamara for the PBS series First Person but accumulated enough footage to produce this feature documentary. Using blackouts between cuts and yelling his questions from beyond the camera, Morris creates the look and feel of a home movie. And using his own innovative interview technique, Morris projects his image on a monitor above the camera lens for McNamara to address, capturing the power and intensity of sustained eye contact throughout the film.
“The fog of war” refers to the complex business of waging war that is too huge for the human mind to grasp. The ultimate vision comes from the hindsight that comes long after the war is over, complete with its truths, regrets, and twinges of conscience. It is this personal reflection that McNamara elaborates in his 11 lessons in the art of defending one’s country. He offers sound principles such as empathizing with your enemy, accepting the inflexibility of human nature, and being prepared to reexamine your own reasoning. But some of us may twinge at his suggestion that engaging in evil may be required for doing good. Then again, “the fog of war” captures the mindset of centuries of civilization that considers fighting and killing the definitive means of conflict resolution. And, some would argue, present administration included. The wisdom of hindsight is available through history. Sadly, due to the ever-present fog, maybe we’ll never pay attention.