Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Fog of War - Movie Review

Somehow, this percolated to the top of my Netflix queue. I watched it by myself, I knew my wife wouldn't enjoy it. It's the story of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ - during the escalation in Vietnam. This documentary serves as his biography. The subtitle was "eleven life lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara", it highlights these points for the viewer (I won't post them here).

The movie was slow, as most documentaries are. It's told from McNamara's point of view with him speaking most of the parts. The interviewer seems to be from NPR. In my opinion, the interviewer seems to be trying to pick a fight.

The first 42 minutes of the film discuss McNamara's involvement in WW II. The most significant quote in this part (thanks to IMDB) McNamara's superior Colonel "LeMay said if we lost the war that we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals. " This was in relationship to fire bombing Tokyo and killing 100,00 civilian lives in a single night. So the difference between a hero and a war criminal is who wins the war.

It's clear that McNamara has some bad memories from WW II. Yes, the tactics he recommended saved thousands of American soldiers. But it seems to me that he is haunted by some of the trade-offs.

After WW II, McNamara became one of the "whiz kids" who brought life back to Ford Motor Company. So much life, he eventually became president of Ford. He was the first non-family member to be president. McNamara introduced the Ford Falcon, which became extremely popular. But his stay as president was short, he soon accepted JFK's request to serve in government. This resulted in a MAJOR reduction in pay.

McNamara was secretary of defense during the Cuban missile crisis. He believes that the USA came with "a hair's breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions." War that would have likely resulted in nuclear weapons. "They'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. Make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations." McNamara has spoken out against nuclear weapons on many occasions after his service.

Most of the movie focused on the Vietnam War. It may be that he was trying to explain the reasons for the war. In some ways, he was just serving the president. In other ways, he was trying to convince the president what should be done, what he felt was right. But to many Americans, he was a part of the problem. He was a part of the cover-up, explaining how good things were, while knowing how bad they were. During his services, a man named Norman Morrison came to the Pentagon and, while standing beneath McNamara's office, doused himself with kerosene and lit himself on fire. Initially, he was holding his one year old daughter, but bystanders encouraged him to throw the child out, saving her life.

What kind of impact would that have on your life? Knowing that this man opposed your actions so much, he would kill himself and nearly kill his daughter? Knowing that your suggestion to fire-bomb Tokyo cost the lives of many civilians? Knowing that you helped continue the war in Vietnam, the most unpopular war in American history?

Not knowing any details about McNamara, I found the movie interesting. I'm sure there is another side to the story. It seems to me that McNamara is trying to make things right. He's trying to explain how he got where he was, and not all of it was good. But one thing that struck me was that he was serving his country. Something that is amiss in many people today.


Brooke said...

It definitely sounds interesting.

Brian the Red said...

By coincidence I was watching a documentary on Sunday as well. 51 Birch St. starts out as a documentary on this person's long married parents, then the mother gets pneumonia and 3 weeks later is dead. Maybe even more shocking is about the same amount of time later the father announces he is getting married to someone he knew in the past. The story evolves into the filmmaker trying to discover actually who his parent were, not just his "Leave it to Beaver" like memories of them.

A bit slow at times, but I was sucked into his quest and ended up sort of enjoying the movie.