The Fog of War came about after Errol Morris approached former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for an interview that was originally intended to become an hour-long television special. As Morris and McNamara talked over the course of a series of interviews, it became clear to Morris that he could release a feature-length documentary based on the interviews as well as 11 lessons distilled from McNamara’s book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.
So influential was McNamara to United States military and foreign policy during his time with the government (1961-1968) that discussing the conflict of the era is essentially akin to discussing McNamara’s own life. McNamara speaks about his time as the Secretary of Defense with a tone of affection that one might use while talking about their children.
In The Fog of War, Morris explores whether there exists a difference between Robert McNamara and the press’s portrayal of himself. Due to McNamara’s collegiate background and publicity as one of Henry Ford’s “Whiz Kids”, the press has painted McNamara as cold, calculating, and distanced from any emotion or empathy. We see that McNamara certainly exhibits empathy- particularly during his retelling of Kennedy’s assassination- however the press is correct about how much more McNamara leans on charts, tables, and data than human experience when making decisions.
Because the Vietnam War was such a catastrophe, Morris questions McNamara about the human rights violations and mistakes that the United States made during the war. McNamara’s perspective towards his involvement in the war is one of distance. He states that as Secretary of Defense his job was to serve the president, an elected representative of the American people. From this perspective, we see McNamara decline to place responsibility on any one person for the misdoings of the war, separating himself- and by extension Kennedy and Johnson- from this immense moral weight.
McNamara, however, does recognize that justice is subjective and based upon the views of the influential and powerful. He notes that the decisions that he supported during the war would make him a war criminal in others’ eyes- just as the Viet Cong were viewed as criminals in the United States’ eyes for their acts of war. McNamara choosing to use the chain of command as his means of moralizing or justifying acts of warfare is an interesting one in this context, given that the chain of command within the United States is one set in place through democracy. One might wonder if the decisions McNamara made during the war would be different if he were forced to act and bear responsibility as an individual separate from the bureaucratic system.
Throughout the interviews in The Fog of War, we hardly feel Morris’s presence. The documentary consists almost entirely of McNamara’s words, Morris only choosing to interject when he wants McNamara to expand upon the interviews’ questions. Given this interview format, the film is very dense and somewhat draining to watch if one attempts to recall their childhood history lessons and compare them to McNamara’s viewpoints.
The Fog of War closes on two questions that McNamara declines to answer. McNamara doesn’t answer whether or not he personally feels responsible for Vietnam, and he declines to answer why he didn’t speak out against the war after leaving the Johnson administration (given that McNamara and Johnson often clashed during their talks). Morris warns McNamara that declining to answer these questions would be a controversial choice. McNamara recognizes this, and states that he is damned if he answers and damned if he doesn’t. He’d rather be damned if he doesn’t. As a result, the documentary almost seems incomplete without McNamara’s answers.
Despite his intelligence, McNamara was not omniscient over the course of the war. He recognizes that hindsight is 20/20 and that he can see his mistakes and craft lessons from them decades later. The Fog of War conveys these lessons, and McNamara’s stories about the war exemplify his belief that warfare is beyond our ability to understand. By following the lessons in his book and this documentary, however, McNamara believes that warfare- and therefore evil- can be minimized.