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
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
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 SORROW AND THE PITY
"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
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.
THE WRONG INTERVIEWER?
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
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.
VIET NAM/IRAQ LINKAGES
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
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.
LESSONS NOT LEARNED
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
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,
THE STATE OF POWELL'S MORAL CORE
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-à-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
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