Errol Morris’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara was a 2003 film which won the Oscar for best documentary in that year.
The narrative of The Fog of War covers some of defining moments of American and world history in the middle of the 20th century and Robert Strange McNamara was at the fulcrum of many of these events.
US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1967, McNamara says in the film “I lived the Cold War”.
The Fog of War is organised both by the kernel events in McNamara’s life and also by the eleven lessons of the film’s subtitle. Much of the content is an interview between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara but McNamara’s voice dominates. He tells his story direct to camera interspersed with archival material such as TV interviews, telephone recordings, stock footage and news broadcasts.
It is also self-reflexive. The voice of the filmmaker is in the dialogue but is without the self-validating, authoritative tone of traditional documentaries. Errol Morris has made little attempt to hide the technical aspects of his editing. There are obvious jump cuts and some editing suggestions from McNamara have made the final text. This manipulation shows that the film’s voice is not to be found in the technical assemblage. Instead, it is an example of what Kuhn called “a text whose ’truth’ may be judged only by means of extra-textual evidence”. It is the insights into McNamara’s decision-making under great pressure which give it its power. It avoids the trap that Bill Nichols calls “conceptual inadequacy” due to the implied addresser’s ability to place context around his statements.
The sound track is often not in synch with the image track. The text continually returns to visual metaphorical motifs (particularly bombs, guns and military preparations) to undermine the political points (eg when President Johnson is shown saying “we seek no wider war” or when McNamara says “we are rational but reason has its limits”). Philip Glass’s urgent pounding score hammers home the brutality of war.
The first event, and the only one out of chronological sequence is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This kernel event offers a dramatic start to show how leaders operate under pressure and to show how close the world and its “rational leaders” came to mutually assured destruction. This narrative has satellite events in both senses of the word (the missile site pictures from space drive the narrative forward by accentuating the tension). Due to the embedded events of the two contradictory messages from Khrushchev, there is agonised discussion on how to respond. In a series of enchained events, Tommy Thompson convinces Kennedy to respond to the first “soft” message and the missiles are removed without bloodshed. The danger has passed due to the application of lesson #1 “empathise with your enemy”. In a flashforward to 1992, McNamara meets Castro and realises just how close to the edge they came. The narrative concludes back in 1962 by contrasting Kennedy’s simple statement “we won” with an oppositional reading from General LeMay “won, hell, we should have destroyed them!”
The rest of the narrative is mostly chronological and the pace slows down for the longest segment of the film dealing with Vietnam. This war scarred the American conscience like no other and McNamara was the ultimate insider. Unlike the previous military rulers, the French, for whom Indochina posed no real threat to the political system in the metropole, the US was deeply politically divided by its foray into Vietnam.
The paradigmatic structure of The Fog of War also merits some attention. Firstly there is an example of paradigmatic relation of selection based on location. The empathy (lesson #1) with which the Kennedy administration dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis is contrasted with the way the Tonkin Gulf incident was handled (lesson #7 “belief and seeing are often wrong”).
There is also a paradigmic role for the American general Curtis LeMay. He appears in both the World War II and the Cuban segments of the text. In World War II, his directness, courage and bombast work successfully in a brutal war. He reduces the bomb abort rate over Germany by placing himself in the lead aeroplane and threatening to court-martial any crew that fails to reach the target site. He also devastates Japan by using incendiary bombs to bomb its wooden cities.
By contrast, he is marginalised in the Cuban episode. He is the embodiment of the myth of American gung-ho attitude and his injunction “let’s destroy Cuba” carries less weight in the uncertainties of the post nuclear world.
Barthes has said that “the Text can be approached, experienced, in reaction to the sign”. Some of The Fog of War’s signification is self-evident, some is requires interpretation. The sheer scope of the narrative and the controversial personalities, actions and ideas it covers allows for plural meanings.
The text assumes certain pre-knowledge of Japan, Cuba, Vietnam and the American political structure. The Fog of War is an example of what Williamson calls a “bearer of different social purposes”. The implied audience are politicians, political scientists, historians and those with an interest in and knowledge of American political, cultural and social hegemony in the middle decades of the twentieth century. As in Brechtian epic theatre, the purpose is to turn the spectator into an observer but also to arouse his or her capacity for action.
The phrase “fog of war” was coined by the nineteenth century Prussian military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz in a reference to the chaos of war while immersed in it. Much of McNamara’s life is spent inside that fog. His recollections are an attempt to view the referent (the events that cause the fog) with the clear daylight clarity of hindsight.
The text also uses iconic, indexical and conventional signs to display meaning. The recurring motif of dominoes falling on a map of South East Asia works in three ways. Firstly it is iconic (the final domino falls on the location of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam), secondly it is indexical (the dominoes are a motivated signifier for the link between Russia, China and Vietnam) and finally it works conventionally (the dominos stand for the theory by which Communism was expected to take root in the surrounding countries if not stopped).
McNamara’s role in the statistical analysis group of the Air Force is also shown by a deft mix of signs. The image track displays maps of Japan, stock footage of aircraft manufacture and statistics of target destruction. His personal responsibility is conveyed by a torrent of numbers and mathematical symbols raining down like bombs on photos of Japanese cities.
The myth and ideology of this film is based around America’s wars of the 20th century. The myth of American infallibility which grew out of their successes in two world wars haunted them in Vietnam. Johnson’s speech “America wins the wars she undertakes” makes a commitment to uphold the myth. McNamara is a sometimes unwilling partner dragged along to make this myth a reality despite the ‘disturbing signs’ coming from the cable. Occasionally, the real author, Morris attempts to puncture the prevailing ethos with his interjections such as “we had attempted to invade you (Cuba)” or by questioning the use of incendiary bombing in World War II and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But the preferred reading of the addresser is the pride of serving one’s country, right or wrong.
McNamara himself is singularly lacking in ideology. Though he is a Democratic presidential appointee, he makes very few ideologically based statements throughout the text. He is guided more by practicalities and politics (for example, knowing the best time of day to release bad news) than by any ideological codes.
The story is McNamara’s life but the plot is mostly confined to his relationship to warfare. The text is mainly concerned with the application of warfare and its devastating consequences. The recurring images of bombs, aeroplanes, war boats and destruction provide anchorage for this preferred reading of the text.
Apart from his decision to work for Ford, the kernel events that are shown are all directly related to war. McNamara’s decision to work for the Air Force, his acceptance of the Secretary of Defense role, the Kennedy assassination and the Tonkin Gulf incident all serve to increase the disequilibrium of the narrative which is not resolved until McNamara quits his position. The ceremony of the Order of Freedom medal is the signifier that his role is finished and the narrative can conclude.
The frame of the narrative as a whole mirrors the format of the Cuban Missile Crisis story. Each kernel event deals with a problem of warfare or commerce, and each ends with homily and a lesson.
There is substantial ellipsis for the period after 1968. Almost all of this period is omitted except where it directly relates to events beforehand (ie his subsequent meetings with Castro and the Vietnamese foreign minister). His thirteen year tenure as head of the World Bank is briefly mentioned in the opening segment and appears once again in the closing titles.
Apart from a few questions and interjections from Morris and some other voices on the archival footage, most of the narration is done by McNamara himself. However as Tom Ryan discovered in his interview with Morris, McNamara never liked the lessons of the film’s subtitle. McNamara is quoted by Morris as saying “These are not my lessons; these are your lessons”. The lessons were a function of control of the real author.
Nonetheless McNamara, the diegetic narrator, is the addresser of these lessons. He wants “to develop the lessons and pass them on”. The technical code fudges the gap between narratee, implied and real audience. Morris uses a technical device called the Interrotron that Ebert says “allows Morris and his subjects to look into each other's eyes while also looking directly into the camera lens”. The effect is that McNamara can cut through the constraints of the narratee and the implied audience to look directly into the eyes of his real audience, Kozloff's “flesh-and-blood viewers in their living rooms”.
McNamara is a complex psychologised character. He is a sensitive soul who cries tears for Kennedy and Norman Morrison and yet has no compunction in issuing orders which results in the deaths of hundreds of thousand Japanese and Vietnamese citizens. He knows that Vietnam is a dubious, unwinnable enterprise. Yet he offers no argument to Johnson’s simplistic urgings instead serving the president’s desire to escalate the war in Vietnam.
Most of McNamara’s character traits are drawn by indirect presentation. According to Rimmon-Kenan, indirect presentation “does not mention the trait but displays it and exemplifies it in various ways”. For instance, his attention to detail and ability to draw conclusions by use of metrics is established in many scenes.
There is also a contradiction between McNamara’s ego and his modesty. The school scene where he talks about the Chinese and Japanese students trying to beat “that damn Irishman” is immediately contrasted by a 1960s TV interview in which he is described as “Mr I have all the answers”. McNamara comfortably bats away the questions with a stylish modesty that cloaks his true opinion of himself. He says “I don’t know what I don’t know…” and follows this up immediately with a phatic but telling counter-comment “…and there is much indeed”. He is on much safer ground when he goes on to bury the question with a statistic of how many hours of preparation he puts in for each hour of congressional testimony.
McNamara is a Proppian hero and many of the events of his life follow the fairytale morphology. He absents himself from home, he is addressed by an interdiction (“there is something beyond one’s self”), there is violation of the interdiction (outbreak of war), there is villainy (Japan), and the hero is tested (rising through the ranks at Ford).
The meeting with the Kennedys is pure Propp function IX: “THE HERO IS APPROACHED WITH A REQUEST OR COMMAND”. The request is to become Secretary of Defense. McNamara accepts and begins his actantial role as the subject of various quests to serve his country and keep it from nuclear annihilation. Eventually the hero is led to the object of search (Propp XV) Vietnam.
There are also binary oppositions at work in the text. At the character level there are obvious differences at work in the Manichean opposites of McNamara (pragmatic) against Johnson (patriot) and McNamara (dove) against LeMay (hawk). There are also ideological opposites present: conspicuous consumption (Cadillac) against prudent economics (Falcon), the US (freedom) against Germany/Japan (fascism), and the US (capitalist) against the USSR (communist). Through use of these oppositions, the text builds an “effective narrative apparatus” so beloved of Eco.
McNamara’s media skills are evident in many of the 1960s interview sequences. His phatic exchanges with the media in the pre-title sequence shows the comfortable ease with which he sets the ground rules and establishes the boundaries between politicians and the media they rely on. His question “let me ask the TV, are you ready?” is also a metaphorical question for the implied viewer about to embark on the narrative of his life story.
McNamara’s disarming honesty when discussing possible war crimes in World War II is contrasted by his refusal to confront his personal responsibility in Vietnam. He avoids questions of responsibility of Vietnam and concludes, when prompted by Morris, that he would rather be “damned if he doesn’t” answer the questions.
In the final sequences, McNamara wears the seatbelt he helped to introduce and drives his car out the film in a form of metonymy. Here is a man at the centre of great power in one of the most controversial periods of modern history and yet the implied audience remains in the dark about how he feels despite the eleven “lessons”.
It is a puzzling and open ending to the narrative of a puzzling character, Robert Strange McNamara.