PRINT January 2004


Gary Indiana on The Fog of War

I WILL BEGIN BY ADMITTING that I fell asleep five times during a morning press screening of Errol Morris’s The Fog of War—which received its US premiere at the New York Film Festival last September and is currently playing in theaters around the country—and I left the auditorium with precious few impressions besides that of the spectacularly bad dental work that Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense, exposed each time he was featured in close-up. Having now viewed the documentary three additional times, while fully awake, what ultimately seems most impressive about Morris’s skewed framing, Philip Glass’s brooding, ominous score, the cutaway montages of stock military footage from World War II and Vietnam, and the random clips of media moments from the era of McNamara’s cabinet tenure under Kennedy and Johnson is how well they are deployed to contrive an illusion of deepening insight and imminent revelation while dispensing entirely with the factual glue necessary to place McNamara’s role in either administration into any legible context.

Much of Morris’s oeuvre to date (from 1976’s Gates of Heaven, his documentary on pet cemeteries, to his 2000 TV series First Person, whose episodes bore titles like “Mr. Personality” and “The Smartest Man in the World”) has consisted of a geek’s-eye view of subjects only slightly geekier than the director himself—a view that is almost invariably glacial and contemptuous of both his subjects and his audience. Yet now and then, Morris’s technique of staring “objectively” at the human oddities he collects achieves a transcendently hideous rendering of the lame and the halt in human nature, very much in the spirit of Francis Bacon’s portraits of shrieking popes and lumps of human meat writhing about in barren interiors: While Morris’s visual sense is rather quotidian and hardly as exalted as Bacon’s iconic genius, he has a definite flair for turning humans into talking sea cucumbers obsessed with philosophical or historical matters clearly beyond their intelligence. That they also seem beyond the director’s intelligence accounts for the quirky hilarity that rescues much of Morris’s work from being taken seriously.

In McNamara, Morris has at last found a subject whose callow, self-serving evasions and stridently complacent banalities have a deep affinity with Morris’s insufferable delusion that his work digs deep below the surface of things, enlightening the public in ever more innovative ways.

Here the trope of audience improvement, spelled out in the film’s subtitle, consists of “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which range from clichés as old as von Clausewitz (“Empathize with your enemy”), to specious dicta (“Rationality will not save us”), to secular mysticism (“There’s something beyond one’s self”), to corporate-training-manual exhortations (“Maximize efficiency”), to McNamara’s personal notions about how warfare should be conducted (“Proportionality should be a guideline in war”), to pseudo-profundities (“Belief and seeing are both often wrong”), to blatant cynicisms epidemic among governments everywhere (“In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil”), and, penultimately, to a “lesson” routinely spouted by film stars, retired politicians, seasonally traded athletes, grocery checkout clerks, and uncountable other Americans who’ve acquired it through cultural osmosis: “Never say never.” Last, and least, is the bromide “You can’t change human nature.”

This final “lesson” is demonstrably applicable to the case of McNamara himself, who, eighty-five at the time of filming, appears utterly incapable of admitting that something that seemed like the right thing to do in, say, 1962, though historically proven to have been the wrong thing, was nonetheless the right thing because it seemed right when he decided to do it: “You don’t have hindsight available at the time,” he astutely observes. And very little foresight, either, judging by the vast historical literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. There is nothing resembling an apology, a mea culpa, anywhere in this film: McNamara admits that his role in the firebombing of Tokyo would probably have been considered a war crime if America had lost World War II yet seems oblivious to the fact that he committed many war crimes during the course of a war we did lose, even at one point admitting that he can’t remember if he was the person who authorized the use of Agent Orange. When asked who was responsible for the Vietnam War, McNamara unhesitatingly says “the President” but softens this pronouncement by kissing Johnson’s ass with his very next breath, lingeringly enough that even LBJ would have been mortified by it.

The film blithely skips over the routine doctoring of military budget figures and outright lying about casualties that was McNamara’s specialty—connivances that made him LBJ’s favorite inherited cabinet member—as the Johnson administration plunged deeper into a war that neither Johnson nor Kennedy before him believed could be won from its very inception, and glosses over the intense antagonism between McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (in this, at least, McNamara seems to have had the right idea, albeit in the wrong brain). In one of the few unobsequious moments in Morris’s fogbound movie, we at least get to see McNamara jauntily asserting, at a press conference, that the war is going very well indeed, at a moment when even the business community had soured on the whole sordid enterprise, the Quaker peace activist Norman Morrison had incinerated himself directly below the window of McNamara’s office at the Pentagon, and fifty thousand antiwar demonstrators had descended on Washington. (McNamara praises himself for refusing to allow the military guard around the Pentagon to load live rounds in their rifles; we then see footage of demonstrators getting clobbered with rifle butts—which proves that Morris can still work himself up to a sense of irony, if not actual humor.)

Unhelpfully, the filmmaker allows McNamara to repeatedly, with fervor, remind us that the world came “that close” to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis—often emphasizing the pure luck that saved us from worldwide annihilation by pinching his thumb and forefinger nearly together. This is hardly illuminating. For one thing, anyone over forty-five has known this since 1962—and, unlike McNamara, few of us had a nuke-proof bunker at our disposal in which to weather the imminent holocaust.

True, McNamara argued successfully for a blockade and negotiations while JCS mental cases, notably General Curtis LeMay, were truculently lobbying Kennedy to launch a massive air and naval strike against Cuba, which already had over two hundred active warheads and the missiles to deliver them. By his account, McNamara applied the “lessons” of Cuba—whatever they may have been—to the war in Vietnam, a culture about which our government knew absolutely nothing. It’s perhaps more surprising than it should be to hear, late in the film, that, at a conference in Hanoi years after the war’s conclusion, McNamara learned for the first time that Vietnam, far from having been a puppet state of Moscow or Peking, had been fighting a war of national liberation, that the Vietnamese regarded the American incursion as a new attempt at colonization after the French had been driven out, and that Vietnam had been engaged in almost perpetual warfare against China for over a thousand years. McNamara’s learning curve apparently works at the same speed as a Martian probe.

Morris’s idea of a penetrating question is demonstrated in the film’s epilogue: “Do you ever feel responsible for Vietnam?” he asks. McNamara refuses to answer one way or the other, though throughout The Fog of War it’s abundantly clear that McNamara remains, on the cusp of senescence, incapable of feeling much culpability about anything. At best, he feels rueful that history has already decisively pegged him as a monstrous bureaucratic wastebasket. A closing title mentions that after being fired as defense secretary in 1968, McNamara served as the president of the World Bank for twelve years, until 1981. Curious to learn if his own human nature had changed even a tad since his years of orchestrating the slaughter of millions in Vietnam, I phoned the brilliant investigative journalist Roger Trilling and asked him if he had anything to share about McNamara’s tenure at the bank.

“Well, I do know . . . one thing,” Trilling, a prodigious geyser of clandestine information, allowed. “When McNamara was handed his sinecure in 1968, he decided to choose a model nation as a testing ground for international development. He chose Thailand, since he was . . . obviously familiar with the region.

“The primary problem in creating development for the whole country was the economic discrepancy between the impoverished north and the economically healthier south. . . . So McNamara proposed the development of a ‘leisure industry’ that could benefit both areas of the country. This involved bringing girls from the north to the cities in the south to work in the sex industry, as a developmental tool.” But of course as secretary of defense McNamara had already contributed greatly to the promotion of sexual tourism in Thailand, having negotiated the 1967 “R&R” treaty that would fill Bangkok’s brothels with furloughed American GIs.

Under McNamara’s stewardship, the World Bank monitored the entrepreneurial savvy of aging B-girls over a number of years, identifying which were capable of developing businesses that would help bring Thailand into the global economy. These country courtesans, on the verge of retirement, were qualified for microlending, enabling them to open messenger services, bridal shops, laundromats, and various other small enterprises. As these women turned out to be more adroit and quicker at turning a dollar than the males being groomed for private enterprise by the World Bank, this eventually resulted in a complete reversal of Thailand’s traditional gender economics, with women suddenly dominating the economy.

Perversely enough, the system worked, at least to the satisfaction of Westerners like Robert McNamara, who knows that in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. But the evils involved in sponsoring a Third World sex industry in the interests of globalization are depressingly routine compared with the evil Robert McNamara perpetrated throughout his government career. Concerning which, Errol Morris’s Fog of War never scratches the surface.

Gary Indiana, the New York–based novelist and critic, is the author, most recently, of Do Everything in the Dark (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).