Soul on Ice

In The Fog of War, a revelatory new documentary about his life and times, a disquieted Robert McNamara implores us to understand why he did the things he did as an Air Force lieutenant colonel who helped plan the firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II, and, later, as a secretary of defense and pivotal decision-maker during Vietnam, which some Americans came to call "McNamara's War."

In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara said of himself and the other architects of the Vietnam conflict, "[W]e were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." But he prefaced this nostra culpa by explaining that their intentions had always been honorable. "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation," he wrote.

He offers the same kind of ambidextrous explanations throughout The Fog of War documentary, which in a way functions as a sequel to the book. There are distinct differences, however. The book was McNamara's; the nearly two-hour film is the work of Errol Morris, a gifted documentarian who demonstrated against the war in his student days. While Morris seeks to show McNamara as a complicated man rather than the simplistic "monster" conjured by the anti-war movement, his movie is anything but a puff piece. He had approached McNamara after reading In Retrospect in 1995, and says he found depths in the book that were missing from the reviews. (McNamara was ambivalent at first about the film idea, but eventually agreed to a series of interviews.) A key to the depth in Morris' film is his camera: This is one of those interview-based films (interlaced with previously unaired historical footage) in which the camera stares hard into the man. And the man, for the most part, does not look away. He stares back, ever straining to make his case to the audience, revealing, perhaps, more than he imagines.

Such a moment comes when, during some network television footage about American casualties in Vietnam, Morris' voice (he remains off-camera throughout the film) asks McNamara whether he felt he was "the author of stuff" or merely "an instrument of things outside your control."

"Well, I don't think I felt either," says the former defense secretary. "I just felt that I was serving at the request of the president, who had been elected by the American people. And it was my responsibility to try to help him to carry out the office as he believed was in the interest of our people." I wonder if McNamara realizes that many people will hear this response as just another version of "I was only following orders."

Morris' documentary oeuvre, which has drawn applause and earned awards, includes Gates of Heaven in 1978, about two pet cemeteries in California, and The Thin Blue Line in 1988, which helped solve the murder of a Dallas policeman and free from prison a man who had been wrongfully convicted and was facing execution. Morris' most recent film before the McNamara saga was 1999's Mr. Death, the story of Fred Leuchter Jr., a Massachusetts engineer who designed gas chambers, electric chairs, gallows and other death-penalty tools with a view toward making the execution process more humane -- and then destroyed his reputation by becoming a Holocaust denier.

Intimate, intense effects are Morris' signature. They are produced in large part by an interviewing device he created and named the Interrotron. I've never seen the machine, but the filmmaker's notes describe it thus: "A system of modified Teleprompters, the Interrotron allows Morris to project his image on a monitor placed directly over the camera's lens. Interviewees address Morris' image -- while looking directly at the camera, which lets ... the audience achieve eye contact with his subjects."

One of the movie's most powerful passages covers McNamara's little-known service in World War II, when he was attached to Gen. Curtis LeMay's 21st Bomber Command stationed on the Pacific island of Guam. LeMay's B-29s showered 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs in 1945, softening up the country for the two atomic blasts to come. McNamara was a senior planning officer. He describes in particular the firebombing of Tokyo, then a city of wooden houses and shops. "In that single night," says McNamara, his eyes filling with tears, the first of his several emotional moments in the film, "we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo -- men, women and children." Newly retrieved military film taken from the air pans across 50 square miles turned to ash.

At this point, Morris abruptly asks McNamara if he knew "this was going to happen." McNamara replies: "Well, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient." McNamara then recalls a moment after the war ended when he was standing with LeMay and the controversial general said to him, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." "And I think he's right," says McNamara. "He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals."

And then he does one of his flip-flops. He starts talking about the fuzziness of "the rules of war," apparently referring to the Geneva Conventions. "Was there a rule then," he asks rhetorically, "that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night? ... LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side has lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

He holds the same kind of self-discussion about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, saying, "Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not? We don't have clear definitions. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I'm not really sure I authorized Agent Orange -- I don't remember it -- but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was secretary."

McNamara's detractors will likely say that instead of shedding tears now about the victims of war and engaging in legalisms, he could have saved a lot of lives when he was running the Pentagon for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson by going public with his knowledge that the Vietnam War was a lost cause -- and that Johnson had admitted this in private.

But it must also be said that it is McNamara alone, among the many planners of the war, who has come forward to say he was wrong. Henry Kissinger, in all his revisionist books and speeches, has never admitted to a single regret or mistake. McNamara's admissions may be incomplete, but they are nonetheless a contribution to history, and the act must have taken a certain kind of courage, for he knew that by coming forward at all he was offering himself up for the slaughter.

That exposure to vilification is clearly on McNamara's mind when Morris, at the end of the documentary, puts to him the two seminal questions the filmmaker has obviously been saving up. McNamara doesn't disappoint him, showing agitation as he evades both probes.

Morris: "After you left the Johnson administration, why didn't you speak out against the Vietnam War?"
McNamara: "I'm not going to say any more than I have. These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You don't know what I know about how inflammatory my words can appear. A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch."
Morris: "Do you feel in any way responsible for the war? Do you feel guilty?"
McNamara: "I don't want to go any further with this discussion, It just opens up more controversy. I don't want to add anything to Vietnam. It is so complex that anything I say will require additions and qualifications."

After such words, there can be no doubt in the viewer's mind that McNamara is a tormented being. Uncomfortable in his skin. Not knowing which group of people he wants to stand with. He has had a life in the establishment -- Harvard Business School, president of the Ford Motor Company, a member of Washington's power elite, president of the World Bank. Is he afraid that if he acknowledges his responsibility and speaks truth to the power circles he was once a fixture of, he will betray some code of the elite or lose something he worked so hard to acquire, such as his social standing?

After watching him under Morris' filmic microscope and listening to his guarded phrasing, my instincts tell me he is crying out for forgiveness but unable to get the words out. In his book and in this film, he has put himself on trial, seeking acquittal and absolution. Yet he cannot bring himself to say the ultimate words: that he bore personal responsibility. Maybe he hasn't taken the necessary first step, which is to forgive himself.

You can hear McNamara's neediness throughout this film. He compulsively says at every turn how smart he is, and how at every stage of his life he rose above the rest. In grammar school, he recalls, smiling in remembered triumph, he had a teacher who gave a test every month and put the pupil with the highest grade in the first seat on the left-hand row. "I worked my tail off to be in that first seat," McNamara says. His competition, he adds, "were Chinese, Japanese and Jews," and they tried and tried "to beat that damn Irishman. But they didn't do it very often."

And then on to college at the University of California, Berkeley, where, McNamara happens to mention, he was one of only three out of his class of 3,500 to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of the sophomore year. After Berkeley, Harvard Business School, where he did so well they asked him back as an assistant professor. World War II was approaching and the business school, to keep from losing all its students to the draft, negotiated a government contract to set up an officer-training school in "statistical control" for the Air Force. And that's how he got to be a lieutenant colonel on Guam.

After the war, Ford Motors grabbed up McNamara and a bunch of other classmates from Harvard, gave them tests ("In some tests, we actually had the highest marks that had ever been scored.") and installed them in executive positions. In 1960, he got the top job. ("I was the first president of the company -- in the history of the company -- that had ever been president other than a member of the Ford family.") Less than five weeks later, a newly elected U.S. president, John Kennedy, asked him to be secretary of defense. McNamara was flattered and honored, so despite the smaller government paycheck and his ties to Ford ("I was one of the highest-paid executives in the world, and the future was, of course, brilliant."), he took the job.

Perhaps these badges of success that McNamara clings to are the crutches that hold him up in a time of inner darkness. That's just a guess. All I can really say with certainty is that this is a film that needs seeing and is worth seeing because, no matter how often one of our politicians announces that we have put it behind us, the pain of Vietnam still hovers over this country. The new film footage and previously unheard tapes of Johnson's telephone conversations with McNamara make the movie a potent history lesson at a moment when the nation needs all the history reminders it can get.