McNamara’s wall

Filmmaker Errol Morris describes a life lived through the deaths of others.

Tom Horgen

The human subject of this documentary, Robert McNamara, will probably go down in history alongside Donald Rumsfeld, the man steering President George W. Bush’s war machine, as one of this country’s most controversial secretaries of defense.

McNamara dictated policy in two of the 20th century’s most brutal conflicts, World War II and the United States’ Vietnam War – the latter finding him in the driver’s seat. Like several of our current leaders, he mixed his political years with ramblings in the corporate world as president of Ford Motor Co. before the Vietnam War and president of World Bank afterward.

“The Fog of War” plunks the 85-year-old former defense secretary down for a confessional interview. At issue are his roles in World War II, the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. The film, directed by acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line” and “Mr. Death”) is broken up into 11 chapters, each representing a different lesson of McNamara’s life. Through these lessons, some guided questioning and McNamara’s own forceful chatter, the viewer gets an insider’s perspective on the death and destruction that this country participated in during the last 70 years.

The results of this prodding vary. There are instances of forthright confession but also moments where McNamara pushes accountability onto others and times when he flat out refuses to respond. Of course, the sidestepping seems somehow better than the now typical, Reaganesque performances where lack of memory is a standard response, be it the shipping of arms, payments of millions of dollars or their own birthday. McNamara simply clams up when asked whether it was his or another official’s orders that led to something as fatally significant as the dropping of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange over Vietnam.

Regardless, every minute with McNamara is fascinating, especially the testimonials. The most harrowing concerns his feelings on the Tokyo firebombing that prefaced the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The March 1945 bombing planned by McNamara, who was an adviser, and the ruthless Gen. Curtis Lemay burned 100,000 Japanese civilians to death in one night.

McNamara remembers Lemay admitting that if the United States had lost the war, they would have been tried as war criminals – their actions could have been seen as immoral. And McNamara agrees, “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.” The former defense secretary then poses one of the film’s great questions, “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

This idea of morality, even in the constant shadow of death, pervades the rest of the film as McNamara discusses his years as defense secretary for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. But his perception of morality seems obviously skewed, especially when lesson No. 9 appears onscreen: “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.”

While McNamara’s moral ambiguities are revealed by his own words, the film’s overly stylized aesthetic seems just as influential. Morris’ visual cues – devastating war footage, slick graphics and a recurring image of dominoes falling over a map of Southeast Asia – as well as Phillip Glass’ score, often have the power to contort the meaning of McNamara’s words and our perception of them. This might seem manipulative, but there are instances when Morris’ visual interruptions – war footage resulting from McNamara’s orders – clarify for history, if not for the man himself, the responsibility that the former defense secretary attempts to avoid.

McNamara comes to us now for some kind of absolution at the end of his life, but “The Fog of War” should not be seen as a case in favor of his redemption nor should it be seen as a portrait of an old warrior dispensing wisdom. Rather, this is a film that should be useful in building our perception of past and present leaders – especially when the history being told from their very mouths is often perceived as truth.