Fog of War
6 – Get the data
War…war never changes, nor it seems do the people pulling the strings. In what is probably his most critically lauded Documentary Mr. Errol Morris, the teller of the strange’s stories, tackles ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara head on about his role and his thoughts on the military events that he was involved in. While this concept may seem a little niche at first one quickly comes to realize that there is no better man to talk to about such things because the history of modern warfare exists in the mind of this one man; not only was he there but he probably gave the order.
1 -Empathize with your enemy
McNamara was a massively maligned figure to those who were actively involved in the pacifistic protests of the last, recently passed century – essentially a predecessor to our own Karl Rove, though of course it is Rumsfeld whom he predated in the literal sense – and yet Morris makes no attempt to vilify him here, unwilling to so blatantly pander though it would have earned him easy votes from the art-house, documentary audience. This equality of message is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Morris is so blatantly one of those that hated the man; the way in which he asks the man questions is so direct and cutting that he couldn’t feel any other way – though some of this is also due to his use of the ‘Interrotron’, a special camera that he uses in interviews that allows him to ask the questions through the lens, so that the subject, McNamara, is always looking to the audience. So balanced is the film that it even works, through McNamara’s words, to lend some validity to L.B. Johnson’s presidency and his treatment of the Vietnam ‘War’, something long thought impossible.
8 – Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
Unfortunately though this unbiased approach also leaves Morris without something to say, he is not however a political film-maker so this is not crippling on its own, more problematic though is the fact that it also leaves him without a single story that he really wants to tell. Had he strived towards twisting the mans words with his imagery, or towards using them to fully redeem the man before it is too late than the film would have had a singular purpose. As is though it just kind of sits on the fence, torn between our natural instincts against war and our rational realization that it is in fact sometimes necessary; it is an interesting but ultimately underwhelming stance to take. In this way having a bias is sometimes better.
9 – In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
Though it is also very much the stance that McNamara has currently adopted. He speaks of being a humanist – of pleading for cooler heads in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crises or of arguing for an early departure from Vietnam – but then goes on to justify, with ease, shocking acts – The Tokyo firebombing of World War Two for one, and the similar attacks on hundreds of other homesteads during the same period, attacks that easily equaled that of Hiroshima in terms of death and destruction – that he himself admits would have been considered War Crimes had he not been on the winning side, where they are simply seen as little more than necessary strategies.
5 – Proportionality should be a guideline in war
His reasoning’s are not new, however the specificity of the examples are; this man was actually in a situation where he was forced to make the calls and so he can speak to them much more authentically than our imaginations can. He was actually in the position where he had to decide whether he could kill one man to save another, or kill three to save two, or kill one hundred thousand to save a nation of millions. Certainly we balk and sigh at the sheer scale of the tragedy and think, ‘Surely there was another way’ and there may well have been, but then there were also other ways which would lead to someone else winning the war. So for all of the lives lost and the mistakes made – and McNamara does admit that he has made many mistakes over the years – we are still here and so these men must have made an equal number of right choices and thus saved a equal number, if not many more, lives.
4 – Maximize efficiency
Though it may seem cold and uncaring to you – as it certainly did to the man’s detractors back then – this is the way in which McNamara thinks, he is a logician and not a soldier. This is the way in which his two seemingly oppositional opinions are merged into those of one man. He had no taste for blood but had for a long time sunk his teeth into numbers and this is what made him uniquely capable of making such monstrous calls, because logically speaking they were all the right ones in that moment.
7 – Belief and seeing are often both wrong
Morris constructs his film to mirror McNamara’s objective and almost buisness-like outlook on the world of war with a visual style that seems akin to the inner workings of the man’s mind. When we are not simply staring him down ourselves thanks to the ‘Interrotron’ we are shown quick snippets of statistics, visualized so as to give us a complete and instant understanding of their meanings, that are as if his thoughts and a steady stream of archival footage, some relevant and some general, that are as if his memories. This approach really works to get us inside the head of this man but ultimately I would say that it also limits the films effectiveness, putting the aesthetic before the content. So again it was a good idea from Morris that resulted in the dampening of his films success.
11 – You can’t change human nature
This is in many ways what the film has to say about war and it is best surmised in the words of the man himself: “There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘The Fog of War.’ What “The Fog of War” means is: war is so complex that it is beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all of its variables. Our judgment and our understanding are not adequate, and therefore we kill people unnecessarily.” Though thankfully for us McNamara’s mental faculties were some of the best available and so despite his inherent humanity he was able to prevent as much of that unnecessary killing as he could; admittedly he did a lot of this by assuring that American methods of killing were as efficient as possible but doesn’t that, in some twisted way, make him a kind of hero?