The Fog of War

By February 17, 2015Reflections/Essays

I wrote this in 2004. After reading I believe it is still apropos to where we are 2014.

This is one of the most gripping/disturbing movies I have seen in a long time. The entire film is an interview with Robert McNamara (Phi Beta Kappa at Berkeley, Harvard Business School “whiz kid”, efficiency expert on bombing in WWII, the Ford Motor Company’s savior and short term president, JFK’s (and later LBJ’s ) Secretary of Defense during the Cuban Missile crisis and the Viet Nam war, head of the World Bank for many years. Footage from wars and critical events during his years are intercut, but for the most part McNamara sits shoulders hunched, in his dark blue suit and tie, staring into the camera, and giving his reminiscences. Occasionally an off-camera director interjects a question.

At 85, this brilliant man gives the impression of living in his own inner purgatory, passing judgments on history and his part in making it – and especially the confusion and misjudgments caused by the “fog of war”. The title comes from a description of the trench warfare of WWI, when ground fog caused great confusion as to what was going on.

His comments mix the memories of a steely sharp brain, able still to recall the exact percentages of pilots killed in every bombing flight over Hitler’s Europe, with the excruciating moral pain of a man who studied ethics and philosophy in college, but seemingly found the math to be more important than the ethics in making wartime decisions that resulted in victory – and tens of thousands of deaths.

The film is structured around McNamara’s “Eleven lessons learned from war” His first lesson “Empathize with your enemy …” he illustrates with a first-hand account of the Cuban crisis, when Russian missiles were found on the island. In those tense days nuclear war seemed like a very real possibility. (I can still remember Jeanie and I sitting in a cafeteria in Charlotte and talking about whether we should take our children and seek a safe place in the North Carolina mountains.)

Nikita Khruschev sent to JFK a message (sometimes described as the “soft” letter) saying that if Kennedy would promise not to invade Cuba, he would remove the Russian missiles. A few hours later another “hard’ message came from the Kremlin, threatening to annihilate the US. Kennedy was leaning toward responding in similar harsh terms, when Tommy Thompson, former ambassador to the Soviet Union opposed him. His voice is heard in the oval office saying, “Mr. President, you are wrong. I know Khruschev. He needs to save face, to be able to tell his people that he stopped an American invasion. Please, Mr. President, response to the ‘soft’ message.” Kennedy did; war was averted.

But, says McNamara, in the case of Viet Nam, Americans did not know their enemy enough to empathize with them.

Other lessons he passes on include:

    • Rationality will not save us
    • There’s something beyond one’s self
    • Maximize efficiency
    • Get the data
    • Belief and seeing are both often wrong
    • Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

He makes a chilling revelation: that the purported torpedo attack on a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which led Lyndon Johnson to order the bombing of North Viet Nam, never happened. “We know that now,” he said. “It was a nervous sonar operator that gave a wrong report.”

“What makes us omniscient?” he asks. “We are the strongest nation in the world. We should never use our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade our allies of the merit of our cause we’d better reexamine our reasoning.”

McNamara’s lessons are grimly sobering, and it’s worth asking: how much have we learned?

Perhaps his most agonizing moments in the film (and there are a number, not a few that came with tears) appear when he struggles to justify and explain his ninth lesson :

    • In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

He remembers Norman Morrison, a Quaker who burned himself to death below McNamara’s Pentagon office to protest the US involvement in Viet Nam.“

It’s a very difficult position for a sensitive person to be in. Morrison was one of those,” he pauses, and adds, “I think I was.” The inner purgatory is obvious.

His last lesson goes to the heart of his summing up, of his work, perhaps of his life, of himself: “You can’t change human nature.” (This is a truth I have emphasized in my own ministry for many years – but with the added hopeful note that Jesus Christ can indeed transform our human nature – and change enemies into friends!)

This bright man so opposed the escalation of the Viet Nam conflict that he either quit or was fired as Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. He claims he still does not know which. For fifteen years after he left government he headed the World Bank and warred against poverty. In the film he says repeatedly, “Human beings must stop killing other human beings.”

But, is that possible? Or will more brilliant, committed, sensitive, and conflicted men kill more and more, doing more evil to do good.

“The fog of war,” is inevitable, he says because “war is so complex, so beyond the human ability to comprehend, with so many variables. Our judgment, our comprehension is not adequate.”

In an epilogue he quotes T. S. Eliot (from the last section of Four Quartets):

We shall not cease from our exploration
and the end of all our exploring will be
to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

“I think that’s where I’m beginning to be,” he muses.

His words are counter-pointed with video footage of the loading of a bomb on which have been painted the words: “Only the beginning.”

What was his beginning? What will be his end? And ours?

At the close the director’s voice asks a final question:

“Do you live with guilt?”

“I don’t want to talk any more,” McNamara answers. “It’s too complex. Whatever you says, there are too many qualifications you have to make.”

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” asks the director.

”Right,” he says. He pauses.

“I’d rather be damned if I don’t.”

The film is not the last judgment.

Thank God.

(The Fog of War is available on DVD)

Leighton Ford,
Charlotte, North Carolina
July, 2004

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