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Errol Morris drawn to McNamara's dilemma

'Fog of War' tells former defense secretary McNamara's story
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you don’t like Robert S. McNamara — if you still harbor decades-old animosity from when he helped engineer the Vietnam War — anything the former defense secretary says now will sound like an evasion or an excuse, says filmmaker Errol Morris.

“If you’re more charitably inclined, it’s his attempt to grapple with the reasons he did what he did,” says Morris. His new documentary, “The Fog of War,” tells the story of this brilliant technocrat and his belated expressions of regret over the war that killed 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese.

What side does Morris come down on?

Very long pause. “I come down ...” Another pause.

“I sometimes answer the question — because I think, tell me if I’m wrong, it has a certain relevance at the present time — what do you do when you serve a bellicose president who wants to go to war? WHAT do you DO?”

Staring reality in the faceMcNamara himself says he isn’t crying out for forgiveness or redemption. He waves his hand dismissively when it’s suggested that’s his motivation. At 87, he is focused, he says, on the lessons that can be drawn from his story.

“What I’m crying out for is for people, all people, to stare reality in the face. And the reality is we’ve killed 160 million human beings in conflict in the 20th century,” he says. “In the 21st century, the population in the world will be, I don’t know, 50 percent greater on average, at least. And we have more people, weapons that are more destructive, and potential conflict — and we ought to learn from that. That’s why I’m speaking and talking.”

McNamara shares what he’s learned in Morris’ documentary, which has been well-received by reviewers and the Cannes and New York film festivals. The National Board of Review picked it as the year’s No. 1 documentary, and it’s made several critics’ top 10 lists.

One of Kennedy's "best and brightest"In person, McNamara displays a steel-trap memory and almost frightening intelligence — still the epitome of a brainiac, with rimless glasses and slicked-back hair. (The film quotes an old news report describing him as “an IBM machine with legs.”)

The man who headed Ford Motor Co. and became one of President Kennedy’s “best and brightest” acknowledges that Vietnam still casts a long shadow. Even now people use the word “quagmire” when expressing their concerns about Iraq. But he refuses to go into whether the lessons from Vietnam are applicable in Iraq. Now, as then, he thinks it’s irresponsible for him to question policy when soldiers are at risk.

The movie offers taped conversations between President Kennedy and McNamara discussing a withdrawal from Vietnam — then, after JFK’s assassination in 1963, stark phone exchanges between President Johnson and McNamara during which Johnson says he had silently disagreed with Kennedy’s talk of a pullout.

Why then, once he left the Johnson administration in early 1968, didn’t McNamara go public with his feelings that Vietnam policy was wrong?

“Well, that’s a good question. And the answer is a little complicated. For one thing, I knew I might be wrong, because the majority of my close associates in the government — both military and civilian — were opposed to my views,” McNamara says.

“Secondly, it would have been totally irresponsible for the secretary of defense to resign and state the policy — which had 500,000 men at risk in Vietnam — was totally wrong. That’s giving aid and comfort to the enemy. You can’t do that.”

Not a mea culpaMorris was inspired to meet McNamara after reading three books he had written. The reviews of 1995’s “In Retrospect” perplexed Morris, because they “seemed to be talking about a different book than the book that I read. They talked about McNamara’s confessions, his mea culpas ... The book really is not a confession nor a mea culpa.”

What Morris read was the story of “someone engaged in a struggle with himself, trying to understand his own personal history, trying to understand the history he was so much a part of, trying to grapple, if you like, with the question of responsibility.”

When Morris thinks of a mea culpa, “I think of someone saying, for example, the war was wrong, I contributed to the war, I’m sorry.

“‘In Retrospect’ is different. ‘In Retrospect’ is the war was wrong, the war was a mistake, and then this anguished attempt to try to figure out how it happened and how he became a part of it — almost as if it was an unsolved mystery. ... There’s this question that I think he is asking in many ways: ‘Am I good man or a bad man? Who am I?”’

The term “fog of war” can have a certain disingenuousness to it, suggesting that the complexities of conflict are so beyond human ken that no one’s to blame, Morris allows.

“I sometimes refer to it as ‘the fog of war ate my homework,”’ he jokes.

How McNamara — and his legendary intellect — could be so befogged is a central mystery of the film. His failure to issue a categorical apology is not so central.

“I don’t think there IS any way to apologize for the war in Vietnam,” Morris says. “You don’t apologize for something like that. I’m not even sure what an apology would mean. Millions of people lost their lives; in many ways it destroyed this country. Apologize? There is no apology.”

Morris' own beliefsMorris, 55, demonstrated against the war as a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then at Princeton.

“The war was appalling to me then, and no less appalling to me now. My feelings have not changed,” he says. “To me the question of course is not was the war a bad thing. ... The question is how did it happen?”

He prospects for answers in McNamara’s life through his film, which begins with an irony you’d dismiss even if a great novelist had confected it: McNamara’s first memory, when he was just 2, is Armistice Day, the end of World War I — “the war to end all wars.”

“It’s hard to know whether to believe him, however, because he is both a pathological liar and a comically pathetic braggart,” liberal writer Eric Alterman says in a scathing review in The Nation.

“The Fog of War” reveals how McNamara, as a lieutenant colonel working with Gen. Curtis LeMay in World War II, played an important role in the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities. Some 100,000 people died in Tokyo alone, nearly a million total, even before the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Morris — whose varied documentaries include “The Thin Blue Line,” “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” and “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” — says people forget there’s an investigative element to his films because they’re highly stylized. (They’re typically complemented with a Philip Glass score, and his latest offers slow-motion dominos falling on a map of Southeast Asia.)

“In fact, there is a strong investigative element in this movie. And one of the things uncovered in the course of making this movie — and I think it is something new, something interesting — is that the received view of McNamara (as an unmitigated hawk) is wrong. Just plain wrong.”

Still, Morris says, McNamara — who maintains the president is ultimately responsible for a war — is responsible for his part, too. But he adds:

“He is human, by God. And it is part of being human to want to figure out something that makes our behavior acceptable to ourselves. But I feel that struggle in him. Maybe I’m wrong.”