the Disillusioned kid
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Thursday, June 17, 2004

I went to see Fog of War by Errol Morris earlier and can heartily recommend it. The film is a fascinating documentary looking at the life of former US Secretary of State Robert Strange McNamara (yes, that really is his middle name!). It focuses particularly on his service in the US Air Force during World War 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis and his involvement in Vietnam.

The film is largely based on a one-to-one interview between McNamara and an unseen interviewer. We are presented with a personal account of these major historical events, arranged around eleven lessons McNamara has learnt along the way (among them "Empathize with your enemy" and "Rationality will not save us"). What emerges is a man still struggling with the morality of actions with which he was involved or even responsible for. He ruminates, for instance, on the morality of the massive bombing campaign targeted against urban populations in Japan which preceded the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians which he participated in and perhaps inspired. At one point he notes that General Curtis LeMay opined that if they lost the war they would be tried as war criminals. This is a very different side to the "war for civilisation" from that with which we are often presented.

One thing which surprised me was McNamara's apparent opposition to nuclear weapons. He refers on a number of occasions how close the Cuban Missile Crisis came to nuclear armageddon and argues that in light of inevitable human fallibility they pose a serious threat to the continuing existence of the human race. It is a shame he has not expressed such views more prominently. A man with his background could bring a credibility to the disarmament movement which it would otherwise be unable to attain.

McNamara is perhaps most famous for his involvement in the Vietnam War, as the Secretary of State for Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. He makes some efforts to justify his role in this regard, but the story of the war is told largely through archive footage and recordings which demonstrate that he was a key spokesman for the war effort and one of its central planners. This section of the film is perhaps the only one with which I feel the need to take issue, specifically over its emphasis on American deaths. While these were considerable, McNamara puts the figure at 58,000, this pales into insignificance against the numbers of Vietnamese (not to mention Laosians and Cambodians) killed which is probably getting on for 4 million. The idea that the soldiers of an invading army are somehow the only victim of a conflict is a theme which has been returned to in Iraq today.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for McNamara. The film presents a human side to him even while detailing the consequences of the policies and actions he was responsible for. The epilogue at the end of the film seems to be a response to this. We see McNamara driving through Washington while his voice is played over the top attempting to explain why he has not spoken out against the actions of subsequent US Administrations. His ambiguous response about inciting controversy seems somehow inadequate and leave the viewer with serious unanswered questions.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film. It is a fascinating insight into the thinking of one of the key policy makers from one of the key periods in world history. Nonetheless it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that people typically develop justifications for their actions, however horrible, in order to be able to sleep at night. Over time people typically come to believe these justifications. This is not to say that what McNamara has to say should be dismissed out of hand, on the contrary I think it is worthy of extensive consideration, but rather that it should not be accepted unquestioningly.
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