Movie Review: Fog of War: Robert McNamara’s Journey

January 6, 2004 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Bhagavad Gita

Robert Oppenheimer’s Thoughts On Seeing The First Atomic Test. The Picture On The Left is of A Hydrogen Bomb.

Fog of War: A documentary film directed by Errol Morris. Rating A+
This is a brilliant movie about Robert McNamara’s views on war and peace in the nuclear age based on his experience as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and his service as a staff officer to General Curtis LeMay during WWII. General LeMay’s command was responsible of the fire bombing of Japanese cities (bombing that in the aggregate did more damage and took more lives than the nuclear events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). One wonders why if fire bombing was so destructive was it necessary to use nuclear bombs. One of many questions raised by this perceptive film although McNamara says Truman was correct in using nuclear weapons.

This film is based on Mr. McNamara’s book, In Retrospect, The Tragedy and Lessons on Viet Nam, Mr. Morris’ interviews with McNamara and archival film footage of the events discussed.

The premise of this film is that given human fallibility and the power of nuclear weapons to destroy entire nations in a few minutes we must be better prepared to solve international problems through diplomatic means or mediation by third parties i.e. the United Nations. Further if there is to be a war it has to be done with multilateral consent and not just one nation squaring off against another.

The film is an interview with Robert McNamara juxtaposed with archival footage of the events in his life that led him to his conclusions. Conclusions that include his belief that the Vietnam War was a mistake and that in the case of Japan, General Curtis LeMay’s comment that they would all be prosecuted as war criminals, if we lost the war, because of the fire bombing was probably correct. This is balanced by the fact, he points out, that sometimes you must do evil to accomplish good i.e. countless American lives were saved by the fire and nuclear bombing of Japan. I can’t help being reminded of the sayings, the end never justifies the means and he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword which was certainly part of the Bushido code.

McNamara states when we entered the Vietnam War we knew we could not win because we wanted to avoid a larger war with China and possibly Russia. Mr. McNamara knew this in 1962 or 1963 because intelligence reports including CIA evaluations revealed that bombing in itself could not stop North Vietnam from supplying the South with men and supplies and since the supplies of war was generated outside North Vietnam we were powerless to destroy the means of production also. Our leaders knew for every troop commitment by the U.S. the North Vietnamese could match it with an increase of their own troop strength. Further it became obvious that the will to fight in the South basically centered in the Army and not the people. After Diem and his bother were assassinated with U.S. complicity, there was no viable political base to build on. We lost the hearts and minds of the people to the Viet Cong very early.

Mr. McNamara points out that the only way out of Vietnam was unilateral withdrawal because the North knew it was winning and there was nothing to negotiate. Bombing did not seriously interdict their ability to wage the war or recruit men to fight.

So how did we go there in the first place? Mr. McNamara believes it was caused by the lack of experienced U.S. Southeast Asia experts. The fall of China and the subsequent McCarthy witch hunts had effectively purged our government of knowledgeable experts on the area. He makes the point that to the Vietnamese the war was a fight against colonialist aggressors and a civil war. Vietnam had been in a battle to free itself from Chinese domination and later French domination for a thousand years. The Americans were seen as a new colonialist aggressor while we saw ourselves in a battle to stop communist expansion. Since WWII Containment was our policy against Russian Imperialism and the domino effect was our rallying cry justifying our involvement in Vietnam. Lack of experience on our part caught us seeing this war as another Korea and another advance of communist hegemony over the world instead of a small country trying to assert its independence from China, then France, then us.

Well with the benefit of hindsight we now see that Vietnam was not the threat to the free world as first perceived. It now appears to be the independent country it always wanted to be albeit communist in government probably because that was the only source of help Ho Chi Mien could turn to in the fight against French colonialism. At that time you had to line up on one side or the other to survive and prevail. Unfortunately for the U.S. our allies in the Cold War were also the major colonialists of the world. France unlike Britain was unwilling to leave some of its former colonies peacefully and America saw the Vietnam war as one of communist expansion rather than a war to rid itself of the last vestiges of colonialism and the French trained elite among its own people.

In the end the lives of 58000 Americans and three million Vietnamese (The equivalent of twenty seven million Americans. McNamara loves numbers and their relationships.) were lost on misperceptions given as advice to our Presidents and political leaders. Advice McNamara disagreed with and which ultimately caused his dismissal by President Johnson. . This is documented by statements on tape and internal government documents since released. The hawks appear to be senators, congressmen, cabinet members and outside experts buttressed by the Joint Chiefs who were always for escalation and a military solution which would have been impossible with out a probable third world war with nuclear consequences for every living soul on earth.

To his credit he says LeMay was a brilliant commander and military leader who was indispensable in war. However McNamara says LeMay believed we were going to fight the Russians eventually so why not when we had nuclear superiority in warheads and missiles. This is why military men should be advisors and not policy makers. McNamara points out in October 1963 the military had advised the invasion of Cuba when unbeknownst to us the Russians had ninety tactical nuclear weapons and about sixty strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba. If Kennedy and Kruschev were unable to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal there would have been a nuclear exchange with the probable end of human civilization as we know it. The same situation would have occurred in Vietnam if we had followed military advice and escalated the war by using tactical nuclear devices. China would have felt threatened and retaliated. Chou En Lai once said that if we had not advanced to the Yalu River in the Korean War and sent scouting missions and flights beyond, China would have not entered the war.

McNamara makes the point in this film with Errol Morris’ formidable help that in this nuclear age we cannot go to war over a misunderstanding of another nations actions. A nuclear exchange offers no
room for correction or change of policy or goals once its done its all over.

History is plastic as it unfolds and in the heat of the moment one decision can lead to unintended results and history is always plastic in the subsequent interpretation and evaluation of events and so it is with McNamara, Morris and their film and views. One thing McNamara has right is that we cannot have a nuclear exchange by large powers or even lesser powers, ever, or else we will see Armageddon in our times.

My only sadness about this film is the limited release this picture was given. I believe five theatres nation wide are showing it. It ought to be shown to every high school student in America and all other countries as well as an example of the terms of life in the nuclear age. As McNamara points out we are not going to change human nature but communication and understanding can be improved.

If McNamara and his counterparts were sane men doing rational acts under misperceptions what about other men such as Saddam Hussein? Was/is he sane. If he was was he duped into misperceiving the consequences of his acts by fawning staff members who were fearful of disagreeing with him? Kim Il Jung. Is he sane or rational? What are his misperceptions about being a nuclear power. Would an advisor ever disagree with him in public or private? McNamara credits Tommy Thompson a former ambassador to Russia who had spent time with Kruschev and his family with saying to Kennedy during the Cuban crisis that he ought not react to the hard line second message from Russia and respond to the earlier more conciliatory message that appeared to come directly from Kruschev. Although Kennedy initially had thought he had no alternative but to respond to the later hard line message. In following Thomson’s advice Kennedy was able to work out a plan of disengagement whereby Kruschev was able to say he had prevented an invasion of Cuba and of course Kennedy secured the removal of the intermediate range missiles and their nuclear warheads which threatened ninety million U.S. citizens with extinction. Years later Castro told McNamara that at the time he urged the Russians to use nuclear weapons even though it meant complete annihilation of Cuba as a country. Is he a rationale man? Should he be in charge of country?

Bush must have thought the same about Saddam Hussein who tried to assasinate the elder Bush when he visited Kuwait after the Gulf War. Such an act, if successful, would have meant immediate war with the U.S. and Husseins probable removal ten years earlier. Is Bush’s policy of preemptive strikes a sound and a rational action? It may be with rational or irrational dictators acquiring weapons of mass destruction and little compunction against using them. This film raises all these and other questions about national policy in the nuclear age



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