Last Tuesday, I sat on a panel following a screening of Errol Morris’ Fog of War. The panel went very well; the speakers all had interesting things to say, the questions were good, and a fair percentage of the audience stayed after the film ended. My co-panelists were Lance Bennett, UW political science and communication professor, and Roger Morris, who worked in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations on Vietnam policy.
The latest viewing of Fog of War crystallized some of my disquiet about the project. Sure, McNamara should be commended for not taking the Henry Kissinger route and explaining how Vietnam was critical to the larger strategy of containing the Soviet Union, etc. But, that only goes so far, and Morris really doesn’t try to push McNamara any farther than he wants to go. Morris gets what he wants from McNamara, which is an admission that Vietnam was a costly, unnecessary mistake. That’s fine, but it’s not the whole story. What McNamara’s account lacks is a genuinely reflective account of how the mistake was made, who was responsible, and why so many people went along with it. Morris could have pressed McNamara, but he doesn’t.
Most irritating, Morris doesn’t try to challenge McNamara even when Stay-Comb Bob is clearly lying. “In a sense,” McNamara didn’t know about the attempts to assassinate Castro, and “in a sense” he and Kennedy weren’t aware of the plot to kill Diem. What the hell does that mean, exactly? How can you know something like that in one sense, but not in another? Perhaps Morris’ challenges didn’t make the cut, but there would be a certain value in uncovering McNamara’s project. It’s wrong to think McNamara is coming clean, because he’s not. He’s painting a picture, and he wants us to see some things and not others. Challenging him on camera would at least give some indication that he’s giving a performance as much as a confession.
The most interesting parts of the film come not in the semi-confessional Vietnam segments, but rather in McNamara’s discussion of World War II. The firestorming of most of urban Japan remains less politically controversial than most anything associated with Vietnam, despite the fact that the criminality is, if anything, greater. Because of this, McNamara’s discussion of WWII is more genuine than his discussion of Vietnam. We get the sense that he both admires and is horrified by Lemay. Unfortunately, the admiration strikes me as genuine, while it seems that he is horrified because he ought to be horrified, which is a different thing. McNamara describes himself as being critical to the March 10 firestorming of Tokyo, which incinerated 100000 Japanese civilians. He relates his role in a matter-of-fact style, without all the confessional nonsense that we see in the Vietnam scenes. It is here, I think, that we see the real Bob McNamara; the arrogant son-of-a-bitch capable of making awful decisions (and I mean awful in every sense of the word), without consideration for their moral and ethical consequences.
Professor Morris pointed out one of the film’s biggest shortcomings, which is its depiction of the relationship between McNamara and LBJ. Johnson is depicted as a bully in the film, driving the hapless McNamara into an ever deeper commitment to Vietnam. This is a half-truth. Yes, LBJ was a bully, but he respected those who would stand against him. The problem was that McNamara never made an effort to do so. McNamara never tried to steer Vietnam policy in the direction he now tells us he wanted it to go. Rather than standing up to power, he went with the flow. Some indication of this in the film would have been nice, because it transforms our understanding of the critical conversation between LBJ and McNamara. In McNamara’s version of events, LBJ indeed seems the bully, willing to walk all over Kennedy’s memory and his preferred policy in a mad drive to deepen the commitment to Vietnam. McNamara is unable to stand against his President so, loyal to the end, he does his best to make that policy a reality. This is, of course, exactly how McNamara wants us to think about his relationship with Johnson. A more nuanced account, one that took into consideration Johnson’s dependence on his advisors, his intelligence, and his personal style, makes this encounter come across much differently. Rather than the troubled but loyal servant that McNamara likes to think of himself as, we would see a flexible reed, bending in whichever direction the wind blew.
Morris could have shown that, but he didn’t. Fog of War is a good film, but also an important missed opportunity.