He builds his case with a chilling persuasiveness

THE FOG OF WAR

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


                Sony Pictures Classics deserves a tip of America’s hat for making sure the country gets a chance to see Errol Morris’s superbly edited film of Robert McNamara reflecting on human error.  “The Fog of War” will not flood theaters with people and money, but it will become a focus for national debate.  Change a few names and places, and he could be talking about today, though he has the grace not to raise the comparison.  The fog of war, McNamara says, is the fog of human error that puts war beyond “the human ability to understand the variables.”  We cannot, he believes, eliminate war because we can’t change human nature.  He builds his case for this conclusion with a chilling persuasiveness.  Operating under the shadow of modern weaponry, there will be no learning curve.  We will destroy nations as we learn from our errors.

                President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense begins with his own mistakes during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  He says, repeatedly so we won’t miss the point, that we came “this close” to seeing 90 million Americans incinerated by the Soviet missiles in Cuba.  Behind the closed doors of the ex-comm meetings, the belligerent General Curtis Le May wanted to destroy Cuba while former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson wanted to leave Khrushchev a way out – “We have to put ourselves in their skins and see how they feel.”  At the same time, CIA continued its efforts to assassinate Castro.

                In McNamara’s judgment, Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev were all rational men, and still we almost had nuclear war.  It was only pure luck, he says, that we didn’t.  With 7500 nuclear warheads ready now will we learn anything from our mistakes?  Probably not, considering his assertion that we escaped by a hair three times during his tenure.  

                On parallel tracks we learn of McNamara’s lightning ride from Harvard Business School to head Whiz kid at the Ford Motor Company.  We learn again, as we did with GM's Engine Charlie Wilson, what CEO’s don’t know about nations and cultures.  “We see what we want to believe,” he says and what we wanted to believe in Vietnam was that in President Johnson’s words, “We have declared war on tyranny and aggression.

                He implores us to understand a culture before attacking it.  Where we saw Vietnam as a Cold War battle, they saw it as a civil war, the trap of misunderstanding again.  They wanted independence and unification.  We saw them as a Cold War domino.  The new McNamara:  “I don’t believe we should ever apply our power unilaterally.  If we can’t persuade nations of the value of our cause, we better reevaluate our reasons.”  The major contribution of Robert McNamara may well lie in that line and this film. 

                Will we learn anything?  Our national memory is so short, our national instincts so hurried, that the answer is clear.  McNamara’s reflections offer no reassurance whatsoever, coming at us instead as flaming arrows of warning. 


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