Many would kill to have Robert McNamara's résumé -- professor at Harvard Business School, president of the Ford Motor Company, secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, president of the World Bank. Ironically, what the aging bureaucrat stands to be remembered for are the millions who killed or were killed while he was compiling that résumé. The ultimate whiz kid, McNamara applied statistical analysis to the problems he faced as defense secretary -- most notoriously, the Vietnam conflict, which, broken down into tables and charts, became 'mcNamara's War." And over the years the label has stuck. McNamara didn't call all the shots in Vietnam, but he called a lot of them and administered the rest. And with his slicked-back hair and wire-rimmed glasses, his head full of facts and figures, he came to embody the modern, technocratic approach to warfare -- "an IBM machine with legs."
But who would want to be remembered that way? Like Richard Nixon, McNamara has spent the better part of his retirement grooming himself for the history books. His 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, was considered an act of contrition by some, a cop-out by others. Lessons aside, was McNamara saying 'mea culpa' or 'mistakes were made'? It was hard to tell. And it doesn't get any easier in The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara, Errol Morris' surprisingly respectful documentary. I say "surprising" because Morris was reportedly one of the UW students who took to the streets, back in the early '70s, to protest the war in Vietnam. Has he changed his tune? "I have never had a reason or occasion to change my mind about that war," he recently told The Village Voice. "I have, however, had reason to change my mind about McNamara."
Exactly what those reasons are we may never know, because The Fog of War, instead of clarifying McNamara's views and exploring how they differ from other people's views of the war, adds another layer of fog. Much of the film consists of McNamara -- hands and arms in constant motion, a workout that would exhaust the average octogenarian -- speaking directly into the camera. (And nobody speaks more directly than Robert McNamara.) But mixed in with those interviews is a panoply of artistic touches: archival footage that gets goosed by various editing techniques, a row of dominoes collapsing over a map of Vietnam (the Domino Theory, get it?), a count-the-nose-hairs close-up of McNamara driving through Washington, D.C., and, last but not least, Philip Glass' portentous score. What does the score portend, you might ask? I'm not sure. Morris has said he chose Glass for his ability to evoke existential dread.
The thing is, McNamara doesn't seem to be experiencing existential dread. Except for when he's tearing up over, say, his selection of JFK's burial site at Arlington National Cemetery, he appears to have the same boundless confidence that some used to call arrogance. To be fair, he also seems quite moved when discussing Norman Morrison, the young Quaker who set himself on fire outside McNamara's Pentagon office as a protest against the war. With these displays of emotion, Morris may think he's found the chink in McNamara's armor, the vulnerability brought on by guilt and regret. I wonder. Clearly, the guy's not made of stone, but neither is he the tragic figure Morris makes him out to be -- King Lear wandering around the heath, chased by his inner demons. There's simply not enough self-awareness. Consequently, the 11 lessons mentioned in the film's subtitle are meant for us, not him.
They're an interesting mix of Machiavelli, Clausewitz and -- oh, I don't know -- Oprah. "Empathize with your enemy," McNamara says, and you think to yourself, "If only our leaders would do that more often." McNamara again: "Get the data," and you think, "Oh, by all means, get the data." McNamara again: "Maximize efficiency," and you think, "As opposed to minimizing efficiency?" McNamara again: "Never say never," and you think, "Yes, and a bird in hand is worth two in the bush." As trite as some of the lessons are, others take us into deeper, darker territory. "Rationality will not save us," is the lesson McNamara drew from the Cuban Missile Crisis, where both sides pursued utterly rational ends to the brink of utter disaster. Later: "In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil." (And you think, 'tell me about it, Agent Orange.") Finally, the culminating pearl of wisdom: "You can't change human nature."
What McNamara is outlining is a tragic view of life: Mistakes were made, are made, will be made. And the only difference between him and the average American is that, when he made a mistake, thousands of average Americans died, not to mention millions of Vietnamese. And Japanese: McNamara, who helped plan the fire-bombing of Japanese cities during World War II, points out that, if we'd lost the war, he'd have been tried as a war criminal. (On a single Tokyo night, a hundred thousand civilians burned to death.) Not that he feels responsible -- not morally responsible, anyway. A similar slippage occurs when he discusses the Vietnam War, which he now deems "wrong, terribly wrong." Does he mean morally wrong? And does he think there's anything he could or should have done to prevent it? The problem with a tragic view of life is that it's pessimistic, defeatist. Why try fixing today if you're just going to screw up again tomorrow?
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings," Cassius tells his fellow traitor in Julius Caesar -- a line that's dripping with irony, for Cassius isn't blaming himself for wielding power improperly, he's blaming himself for not accumulating enough of it. As for McNamara, he was hardly a traitor, like Brutus and Cassius; on the contrary, he continued to fight the war in Vietnam long after realizing it couldn't be won. Nevertheless, he shares with Shakespeare's co-conspirators a tragic flaw: his thirst for power. That his conscience might have come before his thirst for power seems rarely to have occurred to him, which is why, despite his tragic flaw, he still isn't a tragic figure. "You're forced inside his head," Morris has said about The Fog of War, which obviously wants to take us there. But does it? As the credits rolled, I remained on the outside looking in, waiting for the fog to dissipate.