The Fog of War
Directed by Errol Morris


The Fog of War

When the Motion Picture Academy presented an Oscar to Errol Morris last Sunday for best documentary of 2003, he bounded to the stage and said - I'm paraphrasing here but it's close enough - "Well, so you finally recognized my work!" This modest acknowledgment is a clue to what's wrong with "The Fog of War," which is that it's all about him and not his subject.

Dealing with Robert McNamara, a major architect of the bloody conflict that tore this country apart for ten years, Morris steers almost completely clear of anything resembling journalistic inquiry, which is the only possible reason for interviewing him in the first place. Morris wants us to know that he a) got McNamara to speak on camera for the first time; and b) was able to present us with eleven 'lessons' that McNamara wanted to impart as his legacy. But the 'lessons' are bland homilies that have little to do with his career as Secretary of Defense, or the decisions he made during that career. It seems obscene to me that more than half the film is spent listening to McNamara rehearse the story of his childhood, marriage, teaching career and his five years at Ford (in which his proudest accomplishment is the production of the Falcon).

McNamara confirms his image as a mechanical man by reciting the acts he took part in during World War II, when he was on General Curtis LeMay's staff ordering the firebombing of Japanese cities. He says that killing 100,000 civilians in Tokyo one night raises moral questions, and recalls LeMay's comment that "If we'd lost the war we'd be tried as war criminals." But we don't know what McNamara thought. He raises the question but won't answer it. And Morris does not pursue it. (Evidently they had an agreement that there would be no followup questions, which is surely a red flag to any journalist.)

The topic of Vietnam, which is the reason most of us have any interest in McNamara, is finally reached at about minute 80 of the film. He describes his conversations with Kennedy and Johnson about our military options (and Morris plays the transcripts for us), and his vague gestures toward decreasing our presence there. He says that we were just about to reduce our forces when, unexpectedly, Diem was overthrown in a coup. What he does not mention, and Morris evidently does not know or chooses not to mention, is that the coup was staged with the assistance of the C.I.A. What we learn from this and every other segment of the film is that this man cannot confront his past. We do not ask him to apologize, to pander to those who disagreed with him, or even to justify his decisions. We only ask him to acknowledge the questions, and he does not do it.

Regardless of one's political views, history requires us to learn the lessons of our actions. Today, as we stumble through the rubble of the lies that underlay our invasion of Iraq, and the new revelation that the British Prime Minister can order the bugging of the office of the Secretary General of the United Nations - and then have the chutzpah to describe the whistle-blower as 'irresponsible' - it's essential that decisions of war and peace be debated openly and honestly. If there is a war crime here, it is that McNamara still can't do it, and Morris won't even try.