The International Writers Magazine: Review
of 'The Fog Of War'
Dan Schneider `
came to fame in the late 1980s with his anti-police corruption
documentary The Thin Blue Line, and has spent the last couple
decades gracing cinephiles with controversial, yet distinguished,
films. Last years Oscar-winning documentary The Fog Of
War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara is
his best yet, and one of the best films- documentary or not- ever
It works as a history
of the American Military of the last 50 years, and a personal portrait
of ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War,
not to mention a philosophical foray into the nature of man and evil.`
Yet, delineated as those 3 points are, the film is not dogmatic.
McNamara is not portrayed as sympathetic, although sometimes he elicits
sympathy- his love and loss felt at the murder of JFK, nor dogmatic,
although his actions in the film and out belie that, and led to his
being fired by LBJ. Morris takes an effective tack by parsing the film
as eleven lessons from McNamara- a very Oriental approach to a life.
This is also reflected in the fact that the film rarely answers questions,
in the general or specific, rather intent on making its viewers think.
Great art usually provokes queries, not smoothes with answers.
Thus the films essence and its title, which refers to the
chaotic complexity, therefore unpredictability, inherent in war.
Things are revealed in the film that were unknown or rarely commented
on before- the pros and cons of General Curtis LeMay, the holocaust
wreaked upon Japanese cities before the two atom bombs were dropped
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. McNamara argues both sides of the argument
effectively, and you never know which side he truly believes in. The
young pragmatist sought to make the war machine more efficient, yet
the older man looks at proportionality. The most effective sequences
in the film are the scenes of 67 devastated Japanese cities, their death
tolls, and that counterpointed with equivalent American cities. In these
scenes, as in the rest of the film, Philip Glasss score works
in concert with the film - as it did in the Quatsi films of
Godfrey Reggio. When good, Glass is very good, when bad- as in the
atrocious The Hours- hes horrid. Perhaps its because he
needs a good directorial hand to guide him.
Yet, the film soars to timelessness in its role as philosophic
inquiry, asking queries about the ethics of war, how to pursue ethical
warfare, if such exists, and the causes of war- is it a bunch of powerbrokers
who can end it by fiat, or is it unpredictable event subject to the
flap of a butterflys wings? In a sense, the whole thrust of the
film is in perfect concert with its subject. McNamara comes off as a
man of deep intellect, pathos, conscience, and a scientific bent. Yet,
even today, he is utterly clueless as to his actions- especially in
Vietnam. Hes a man capable of admitting the Vietnam War was a
colossal error, but not really assigning blame to himself, nor his Presidents.
Yet, this ambiguity is in line with the film. Imagine this film with
Henry Kissinger as its subject. Its McNamaras equivocation
that lends the film a genuineness and interest that would be absent
in a film on the haughty, dogmatic, condescending Kissinger. McNamara
allows for subjectivity, for the Fog of War. A Kissinger film might
be titled The Hammer Of War.
Yet, the essence of evil is not so easily defined. Who is more
evil- a McNamara or Kissinger? Both have the blood of millions on their
hands. McNamara knows this and attempts to wash his hand, while Kissinger
joys in it. Its sort of like asking who is worse- the cool, Mob
hitman with dozens of kills, who gets no joy- only pelf- from death,
or the serial sex killer whose only pleasure in life derives from sadistic
pain and murder? Regardless of his evil or not McNamara is a fascinating
character to watch- for more animated, and less guarded, than he was
as Secretary of Defense, and his POV on the 20th Century is important
to understand, for it was Americas, by and large. Yet, this film
does what no mere memoir could- we see the tics and looks from McNamara
that no book could do justice to. We hear not only what he says, but
see what he means.
The editing and effects are simply brilliant, along with the
aforementioned score. Dread lurks even when McNamara is confidently
declaiming- eerily echoing the disasters Vietnam laid out before America,
even as we were constantly told how great things were going. McNamara,
for all his candor re: World War 2, even admitting he and General LeMay
could have been considered war criminals if the US had lost the
war (a cogent point on the victors write history trope), says precious
little about his role in Vietnam, claiming to not even recall if he
authorized the use of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange. He places
all the power with the President- mostly LBJ- in regards to war decisions,
even though his purview and job description was to make recommendations
to the President. Theres also a bit of Brutus in McNamara- suggesting
that JFK would never have let Vietnam spiral out of control like LBJ
did, even though he had the power to stop it, and/or just walk away
as an act of conscience. A viewer of the film will feel that McNamara
is just as reptilian as Kissinger, just a bit more aware or caring of
Another point worth noting is the circular nature of history,
at times. The interviews with McNamara took place after 9/11, but before
the Iraq War. Yet, Mcnamaras comments could very well have been
made directly on this war. In certain ways all wars are the same. The
clips from old newscasts, with steadily rising death tolls, contrasted
with government assurances that all is well, are eerily prescient.
Yet, not all wars are alike in all ways. Let me sift through
Morriss Eleven Lessons from McNamara and compare the Vietnam and
1) Empathize with your enemy- Osama bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh. The
former is a hypocritical, delusional Messiah, while the latter was an
impassioned, pragmatic leader.
2) Rationality will not save us- this deals more with the Cuban Missile
Crisis than Vietnam, yet is cogent re: Moslem fanatics. The only question
we can ask is what drove them to such extreme, and what role did we
3) There is something beyond yourself- in an intellectual sense this
is no problem, but taken materially you have the basis of religious
bogeymen, and their servants like Osama.
4) Maximize efficiency- this is an error from Vietnam repeated in Iraq.
Why split the American military in two for a fruitless reason in Iraq?
Just like asking why we went in piecemeal into Vietnam. War should be
an all or none proposition. This is the most pragmatic of the lessons,
and the most ignored.
5) Proportionality should be a guideline in war- no WMDs. Obviously
6) Get the data- see # 5.
7) Belief and seeing are both often wrong- # 5 redux. This actually
appears to be President Bushs guiding principle in life.
8) Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning- has there been a less cognitive
Presidency in history? Iraq is the perfect illustration of the ignorance
of this point.
9) In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil- as relates to
# 8 this war has been cast in near total black and white, yet is it
not evil that 1100+ American lives have been lost for a lie?
10) Never say never- on that score Iraq seems as laden as Vietnam.
11) You can't change human nature- the most pessimistic of the points,
but oddly the most optimistic. Both America and Iraq are apt to rebound-
the key is to learn from lessons as this.
This last lesson is also a fulcrum for the film, for McNamara-
while Secretary of Defense- was seen as a cold, automatonic, technocrat,
while the older McNamara, wizened by age, widowerhood, and reality,
is a highly engaging and likable man. The film also allows us empathy
by use of declassified secret Presidential Oval Office tapes of McNamara
urging LBJ to pull out of Vietnam, only to be ignored, and then chided
by the President. As McNamara portrays it he had a Hobsons Choice-
quit and relinquish any chance to diminish LBJs blunder, or stay
and temper it. Of course, to us it seems no such conflict existed, but
we are not McNamara, and this not 40 years ago, during the height of
the Cold War. And whatever flaws the man has he is not a man without
conscience- he even brags about his role in introducing seatbelts to
save lives when he ran the Ford Motor Company, and in the DVD deleted
scenes about his wifes founding the organization Reading Is Fundamental.
Other DVD deleted scenes include nearly 40 minutes of tall tales,
war stories, and some of McNamaras work with the World Bank where
he takes justifiable pride in its finances helping to wipe out certain
diseases and ills, yet ironically such good deeds never get press. Also
included are trailers, tv spots, and a different set of 10 life lessons
from McNamara that he claims are his own, not the films. This
film has got to be the shortest 105 minutes in film history for, if
the deleted scenes (culled from over 20 hours of interviews) are any
clue this film should more properly have been a PBS miniseries. There
are probably only a literal dozen or so films that will have relevance
and cogence in 1000 years. This is one of them. Watch it. Understand
it. Absorb it. If you dont you are likely to be as regretful as
its prime subject.
© Dan Schnieder November 2004
all rights reserved