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Robert S. McNamara, Colin Powell
and "The Fog of War"

By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor,
The Crisis Papers

January 27, 2004

Secretary of State Colin Powell should be required to view the new Errol Morris "Fog of War" film. You may have heard about it: a documentary interview with former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, plus lots of historical film footage and dynamite audiotape recordings of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson talking frankly with McNamara and other advisors about Cuba and Vietnam.

In "Fog of War" -- which opened recently nationwide -- McNamara, in his mid-80s, speaks agonizingly of his moral culpability in World War II and later in Vietnam in the '60s and early-'70s.

McNamara saw himself as a loyal soldier, who told the truth to his boss, the President of the United States -- that the Vietnam war was unwinnable, that the best thing the U.S. could hope for was an endless stalemate -- but who was overruled. Rather than resign in protest, as a way of perhaps saving tens of thousands of American (and many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilian) lives, he stayed on as a technocrat, positively spinning the war news while leading a disastrous campaign he knew made no sense. His soul was forever tarnished.

Secretary Powell could have saved his soul when he came to realize that the nuclear-related "intelligence" being used by the Bush Administration to pave its way to war in Iraq was "bullshit" (his term). But, a loyal soldier to his boss, his method of pragmatic resistance early on was to try to ameleriorate the worst policies of Rumsfeld and his neo-con cabal at the Defense Department. Powell lost that battle, and wound up fronting for the rush-to-war crowd.

When Powell tried to convince an unbelieving U.N. Security Council that war on Iraq was justified on the basis of the embarrassingly flawed WMD "evidence" provided him by Rumsfeld's Office of Special Plans and the White House, the Secretary of State lost all moral credibility in that world body and among those domestically who still had any faith left in him. Any slim chance he had for a potential presidency vanished. (It's fascinating to speculate what the primaries would look like today if Powell's conscience had led him to resign in order to run against Bush.)

You may wonder why I'm urging Powell to see "Fog of War" when McNamara's counterpart is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It's easy: Rumsfeld totally accepts -- and really seems to enjoy -- the making of "pre-emptive" war and accepting whatever goodies and control he confidently believes will accrue to the United States. The neo-conservative Rumsfeld simply would be unable, and unwilling, to deal with some of McNamara's more maturely worked-out rules for how to conduct foreign and military policy successfully: "Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning," "Empathize with your enemy," "get the data," and so on.


"The Fog of War" can be viewed on a number of intersecting levels. One can view it as a history lesson -- for example, the WWII firebombing of Japanese cities, wiping out hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, long prior to the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where, as McNamara says, we all escaped nuclear war largely by luck. Both were campaigns in which McNamara was deeply involved. In understanding the logic of battle in World War II, and the tense atomic game of chicken being played in Cuba, one comes to understand a bit more the universe in which McNamara and his generation lived and worked.

One can view the film in political terms -- both the complex politics in which McNamara and JFK and LBJ engaged, and in how these policies and intrigues resonate today in the Bush Administration. (More of that below when we get to the Vietnam/Iraq parallel.)

One can view the documentary in military terms -- learning how the technology of war influenced bombing runs, for example, over Japan and Vietnam: bringing the B/29 bomber planes down from their normal 23,000-feet release level (where their accuracy was questionable) to 5000 feet (better targeting but losing more airplanes and crews). Fascinating stuff, all.

I stand in awe of the artful way Morris weaves these strands into a compelling documentary tapestry. But, as I think Morris intended, I found myself concentrating mostly on this most complex and revolting/fascinating character, whose middle name ("Strange") speaks volumes.

McNamara is boastful and proud at certain moments. But the overwhelming impression he leaves is that of a broken, haunted man. He looks like Mr. Death, and no wonder; in many ways, he was directly or indirectly responsible for the killing and maiming of millions of Americans and Japanese and Vietnamese.

He can't quite bring himself to confess openly the depths of his moral and spiritual failings. Instead, he talks about the "evil" that one sometimes has to do in order to do "good." One reads between the lines when he talks about the "errors" and "mistakes" that governmental and military leaders invariably make in the hurly-burly that is warfare.

He ponders whether, if the U.S. had lost World War II, he and the others who planned the firebombing of Japanese cities would have been put on trial for crimes against humanity. He suspects that he would have been in the war-crimes dock, along with Gen. Curtis LeMay and others, as a result of Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, when the U.S. Air Force dropped more bombs in that one campaign than were dropped in all of World War II. (He asks a good question: "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?")

At one and the same time, McNamara is seeking absolution (from us, representative Americans) for his unnamed sins, and also wants to keep silent even now about many of the unconscionable policy-atrocities in which he participated and, at times, initiated. One gets the distinct impression that if he were to talk in detail publicly about those secrets, he would have to swallow the black revolver. He's that delicately poised on the razor's edge of conscience.

His eyes tear on occasion when he tells his stories, but mostly not about the mass-deaths for which he was at least partially responsible, but rather when he talks about specific individuals with whom he worked. The former head of Ford Motors was a cold-fish technocrat of warfare -- members of his own family apparently were driven to break with him over his Vietnam policies -- who was referred to in those days as "an IBM machine with legs."

Political leaders often appear somewhat lost and remotely connected to the world when they leave their high offices. McNamara is such an example, in extremis; he's like a character in a Beckett play, living out a dry, despairing life in a grey fog, halfway between zero and void. He will die a lonely, cracked old man, proud of many of his accomplishments -- and there were some -- but dragged down by the weight of his moral crimes and heartlessness. (The film never even goes near the damage he may have done during his post-Vietnam tenure as head of the World Bank.)

Robert S. McNamara emerges as a pitiable wretch whom we both understand a bit -- and thus we listen to his story with a certain grotesque sympathy -- and despise, because of his unwillingness to fully acknowledge and accept full responsibility for his actions. It's a sorrow and a pity. And you can't take your eyes off him up there on the screen -- these dead eyes seemingly inches from your vision -- precisely because of that dichotomy.


Errol Morris knows how to make stunning documentary films; his visual eye and imagination are acute. Even though his films center on talking-heads ("The Thin Blue Line," "Gates of Heaven"), he's able to add poetic visual elements that grab us and make us keep watching and listening. Sometimes these visuals are a bit abstract and precious, but mostly they work to keep us optically engaged while taking in a long speech. In this regard, "The Fog of War" is a work of extraordinary cinema, with a most effective Philip Glass score, sometimes ominously insistent, at other times ethereal and hopeful.

Morris' major mistake, I believe, was to do the interviewing himself. His knowledge of his subject, and the details of the contexts in which McNamara worked, appears limited mostly to the surface issues. He hardly ever comes at the former Secretary of Defense with responses or questions that force McNamara into corners, and, on those occasions when he comes close to a sensitive subject, he tends to back off.

(Morris' method of interviewing -- the filmmaker in one room, McNamara in another, both looking at monitor images of the other right where the camera is -- didn't help; the film's Epilogue rests on an apparent telephone conversation Morris had with McNamara after the interviews were completed, and here more direct questions are posed. But it's too little, too late, and telephone questions are easy to evade.)

The film could have used a hard-hitting journalist, well-versed in the realities of Vietnam politics and military skullduggery, throwing hardball questions McNamara's way.

I say that without knowing how Morris was able to obtain the 20+ hours of interviews with his subject; maybe McNamara, no fool he, said he would sit for Morris only if the filmmaker was the interrogator. Or maybe Morris saw how delicately McNamara was poised emotionally, and didn't want to risk pushing him over the edge, or having his subject abruptly stand up and cancel the whole project. Who knows?

Whatever, one gets the impression that on sensitive topics, McNamara got something of a pass, which permitted him to tell his self-justifying version of events without being forced to go deeper, without having to confront aspects of his personality and behavior that resulted in horrendous consequences for himself and millions of others.


In "The Fog of War," McNamara never makes the connection overtly between Vietnam and Iraq. But the chronology and details of his story permit us to forge some links.

  • For example, McNamara tells us that the alleged torpedo attack on the U.S.S. Maddox in 1964 never happened, but LBJ used it anyway as the precipating event for the open-ended Gulf of Tonkin resolution that Congress passed, thus giving the President authority to wage full-scale war in Vietnam. George W. Bush used lies about non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction and supposed Saddam links to al-Qaida & 9/11 to manipulate the American people and Congress into supporting his blank-check resolution for war against Iraq.


  • "Fog of War" reveals how absolutely ignorant American policy-makers were about Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese history, Vietnamese politics, the Vietnamese language -- and paid a heavy price because of that lack of intimate knowledge of the enemy and how they thought and what motivated them. The same charge could be leveled at Bush: he has taken the U.S. into a war against a people, and in some measure against a branch of a major religion, about which his policymakers have precious little knowledge or understanding. No wonder the U.S. keeps stubbing its toes all over the Middle East. Arab-speaking officers and policy-makers, for example, are few and far-between -- and some that can speak the language are being dismissed because they happen to be homosexual. (Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!)


  • The U.S. moved into Vietnam prepared to fight classical battles, and found itself bogged down in the big muddy of guerrilla warfare, where it often was impossible to tell the friendlies from the enemy. The result was that many frightened G.I.s just emptied their weapons at everybody, thereby losing the "hearts and minds" of the population even more. Under Bush, the U.S. moved into Iraq with conventional equipment, materiel and mind-set, and quickly found itself having to struggle against guerrilla forces, many of whom are nationalists fighting because they don't like being humiliated and brutalized by their Occupiers.


  •  Many of the "best and the brightest," McNamara among them, told JFK and LBJ the truth about what was likely to happen if the U.S. got engaged on the ground in 'Nam, but their counsel was dismissed by their bosses, locked as they were in a Cold War mental construct of a centrally-controlled monster called World Communism; there was no room in that worldview that could account for the strength of nationalism in the socialist world. McNamara confesses that he, too, was blinded by the constancy of that Cold War spotlight, and thus had to struggle to see the war in different terms.

The same tunnel-vision syndrome was repeated, to a large extent, when Bush originally was contemplating his war with Iraq; he paid no attention to those civilian and military and intelligence officers who urged the Administration not to attack Iraq, that it was the wrong war at the wrong time (especially because the U.S. still had unfinished business with al-Qaida), and that "preventive" war was a risky, possibly self-destructive policy in the long run. Bush and his advisors had mentally switched over from "communists" to "terrorists," and thus they didn't feel they had to gave much thought to any of those objections or to the reality of Arab nationalism and tribal/sect loyalties.


As Daniel Ellsberg noted in his memoirs "Secrets," presidents too often believe they can force victory by their sheer will, determination, and the technological superiority they command, and thus they downplay the wise counsel offered by their own military and intelligence officials to reconsider before making a bad mistake. The tragedies that result -- the millions killed and wounded, the depletion of the treasury, the loss of respect internationally, the political civil wars that accompany dissent -- degrade our culture, shred our Constitutional protections, wreck the economy, place American national interests in great jeopardy.

One would have thought that America would have remembered at least some of the lessons of Vietnam. But, no; thirty or forty years go by, the last war's catastrophes are forgotten, and we're at it again, making the same mistakes, with even more disastrous consequences. McNamara thinks this pattern is the inevitable result of the "fog of war," where everything is moving in chaotic warp speed where nothing is clear and mistakes are so easy to make. But, even if that were true, in a Bush Administration possessed with a far different agenda, the fault line runs much deeper than that, and we all are paying an enormous, agonizing price for our leaders' bullheaded imperial-like obstinacy in the face of infinitely complex political realities on the ground.

Given how difficult it is to figure out what to do, and how wars have unforeseen and horrendously tragic consequences, you would think that leaders would move to the war option last, only as a desperate final resort. McNamara eventually came to that position. The Bush boys didn't seem to give a flying fig, making war the first, and almost only, option. America -- all of us -- will pay a terrible price for Bush&Co.'s misguided, greedy, power-hungry folly.


In an exclusive interview with McNamara  published a few days ago, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders put some direct questions to the former Defense Secretary about the Vietnam/Iraq equation and received some surprisingly tough responses that help flesh out what we hear in the "Fog of War" interview shot nearly two years previous:

"I told him [Saunders writes] that his carefully enumerated lists of historic lessons from Vietnam were in danger of being ignored. He agreed, and told me that he was deeply frustrated to see history repeating itself.

"'We're misusing our influence,' he [McNamara] said in a staccato voice that had lost none of its rapid-fire engagement. 'It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong.'

"While he did not want to talk on the record about specific military decisions made by Mr. Rumsfeld, he said the United States is fighting a war that he believes is totally unnecessary and has managed to destroy important relationships with potential allies. 'There have been times in the last year when I was just utterly disgusted by our position, the United States' position vis--vis the other nations of the world'."

Are you listening, Colin Powell?  Do you really want to wind up pitied and reviled like McNamara for moral culpability in war-crimes, or are there lessons you can learn from this introspective, deeply troubled man -- such as when and why to get out?

Our Secretary of State could decide that his patriotism and conscience dictate an immediate, pre-November departure from the Bush Administration -- in order to help stop the re-imposition of the draft, keep more unjustified "pre-emptive" wars from happening, save the lives of countless soldiers and civilians who will die in Iraq and in other countries. In such a circumstance, he could talk frankly with the American people, revealing what he knows about how Bush policy was conceived and carried out. But, while I once believed Powell capable of such principled action, I don't think Powell now has the backbone or moral strength to do that; in short, an imminent Powell resignation is not likely to happen. Ever the loyal soldier, he seems content to serve out his tenure and leave in January. A coward and a wasted soul.

But it's possible that Powell -- who admitted the other day that Iraq probably had no WMD before the U.S. invasion -- is operating from a different agenda and timeline. He may be biding his time, to see if Bush wins a second term in the upcoming election.

If a Democrat wins, Iraq policy will change and there will be no neo-con "pre-emptive" moves on Syria and Iran. But if Bush were to win, Powell might then summon his courage and moral core (if any soul-force remains, that is) and make a much-belated attempt to resurrect his reputation by choosing to unload what he knows about Bush lies and possible criminal behavior.

If Powell were to do so -- in, a major public address, say, or in a Paul O'Neill-type tell-all book -- the effect of his revelations would be cataclysmic, probably leading to immediate impeachment moves in the Congress. The question remains: If it's possible to do it then, why not now?

Go see "The Fog of War," Colin.

Copyright 2004, by Bernard Weiner


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances