So, it seems we’re to be subjected once again, this presidential-election season, to debates over Vietnam. And we should be talking about it, though not as it’s being framed. The relevant issues aren’t draft dodging and deserting—for those aren’t so much about warmongering and peacemaking as they are about the power, the privilege and the audacity it took to shirk the draft and then shirk even the faux military service that served as a substitute.
The relevant issues are the ones that cooler heads tried to raise before the United State’s preemptive invasion of Iraq. You know, warnings about “quagmires” and a new guerrilla war in a place where our boys (and now our girls, too) don’t even speak the language. The ironic thing is, we could theoretically have seen a presidential candidate this year who avoided service in Vietnam by dint of his service in kindergarten—the United States’ adventure in Southeast Asia was long enough ago to qualify as the history we have, yet again, failed to learn from.
Perhaps one of those cooler heads, 40 years in the future, will find themselves in the position Robert S. McNamara is now. To hear McNamara—former Secretary of Defense to Kennedy and Johnson, and one of the architects of the war in Vietnam—described as a “cooler head” may be startling to those who remember the political situation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To yours truly, who was drafted into kindergarten only at the very end of the war, the picture presented in Errol Morris’ powerful new documentary—half biography, half history lesson, all contradictory and perversely fascinating—is the only one I and most of my generation will ever know.
The Fog of War—now nominated for an Oscar for best documentary, and with an excellent chance of winning—takes as its subtitle “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” They are lessons that one wishes we could force the current administration to experience, Clockwork Orange-style if necessary, so pertinent are they not only to the current situation in Iraq and the several year run-up that preceded it, but to avoiding any war that may be fought in the future. They’re simple, obvious lessons—such as, “Empathize with your enemy”—but they have an immense potency coming from a man with such hard-won hindsight.
There’s a certain insolence in Morris confronting McNamara, one of the principal players in some of the most terrifying and awful politico-military events of the 20th century, on ethical issues of war-making. And the McNamara we see here is confounding. He admits quite freely that his involvement in planning the firebombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed, certainly earned him the name of “war criminal,” yet new evidence Morris uncovers shows that McNamara was not the hawk of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations he’s been perceived as. We listen in on recorded phone calls between Johnson and McNamara in which McNamara implores the president to pull out of Vietnam before the massive troop escalation.
Morris’ unique method of interviewing—via his invention the Interrotron—leads his subject to look directly into the camera, making eye contact with the audience, creating an intimacy unparalleled in the documentary genre. Intercut with McNamara—still spry and sharp in his late 80s—is archival footage that’s been mostly unseen until now and so feels fresh and new. It’s all scored to what Morris calls the “existential dread” of the music of Philip Glass to profound effect.
The focus may be on events from half a century back—the firebombing of dozens of Japanese cities in WWII, the Cuban missile crisis, the ramp-up to the Vietnam War—yet the horrible explicit and implicit message of the film is shocking, and entirely germane to the state of the world today: Not only don’t we learn from history, human nature is such that we’re actually driven to make the same mistakes over and over again. McNamara and Morris make an impassioned effort to teach us, though, and we can only hope that the lessons fall on ears that can make a difference in the future.
THE FOG OF WAR , **** , Documentary, Directed by Errol Morris, Rated PG-13