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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Fog of War

In “The Fog of War,” a documentary starring Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara, Director Errol Morris deals with the now 87-year-old man in a remarkably even-handed manner. He is given enough cinematic room in the interview process to state his case-and his regrets-over the American debacle in Vietnam. McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam war, explains that he and others in positions of authority were often ill-informed, knew that the war was ill-fated and that “we [he and his cohorts] were wrong” early on.

Audio included in the film from recently declassified tapes from the Lyndon B. Johnson White House confirms McNamara’s assertion that he encouraged the removal of American troops from Vietnam as early as 1963. He did not, however, publicly state his objections out of loyalty to his boss and the fact that he was “part of a process.”

The war in Vietnam, in addition to the 58,000 American service men and women, claimed, McNamara states, 3.4 million Vietnamese lives. Other sources confirm this figure, noting that over 3 million were innocent civilians. Of this 3 million, more than half were children under the age of 16, those least able to run and duck.

Of the several scenes of high drama in the movie, McNamara is seen after the fact of the war in Vietnam in a 1995 meeting with the aging Vietnamese who had been minister of defense during the war. McNamara explained the fear on the part of top U.S. officials, including himself, that North Vietnam was allied with Red China in a plot to conquer all of Southeast Asia.

“Don’t,” the minister replied, “you ever read a history book? We’ve been at war with China for a thousand years to escape their domination.” The war, he continued, from the Vietnamese perspective, was purely one of national liberation from colonialism, first domination by the French and then by their heirs, the Americans. McNamara was dumbfounded.

The film is framed by McNamara’s 11 “lessons” that he learned from the war in Vietnam, lessons as profound as “empathize with your enemy” or as banal as “maximize efficiency.” Archival footage from the world wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam is also used to good advantage.

The primary focus of the film is the American war in Vietnam McNamara’s history and involvement in American conflicts, however, started with his recollections from early childhood of victory celebrations from World War I. In World War II, he was an airforce Lt. Colonel and assisted the arch-hawk air force general Curtis LeMay in devising the firebombing of Tokyo. The strategy was responsible for 100,000 civilian deaths in a single night in March of 1945. In retrospect, McNamara decried the lack of “proportionality” in this and other U.S. ventures. He also recalled that General LeMay commented that “if we had lost, we would’ve both been tried as war criminals.”

In the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, cooler heads prevailed, both in the Kennedy White House and in Moscow. Former ambassador to the Soviet Union Tommie Thompson noted that the Soviets as well as the U.S. must have a way out that allowed them to save face. Thus Kennedy removed American missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. McNamara, at a later point, spoke directly with Fidel Castro concerning this encounter. Castro noted that he had “172 nuclear missiles in his arsenal” at the time of the crisis, and would have used them, “pulling down the temple on his own head,” i.e. knowing that the result would have meant the destruction of his own country, had the U.S. invaded Cuba as senior military officials were insisting.

It is difficult not to see the movie as a cautionary tale of great relevance to our times and to the current American war in Iraq.

Showing in the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge through January 30. Starts in the Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, on Friday January 30. An enhanced DVD will be available later this year.