“The Fog of War” (2003)

Former Sec. Def. Robert McNamara provides a surprisingly personal reflection on his service and the problem of war, both that in Vietnam as well as war in general.  He provides 11 lessons on war which are highlighted in this very engaging video. Here is the trailer;

*From my in-class film review from 2010;

The 2003 movie, The Fog of War, is as much a documentary of war as it is personal memoir. I first watched the film several years ago, during the time between my military service and my full time enrollment at HPU. It was a formative experience for me, it helped me to see even politicians as complex, conflicted moral agents. Too often, people such as former secretary McNamara are hidden behind a kind of barrier that is established to both protect their safety and also allow them to perform their jobs as effectively as possible. The argument for such insulation stems from the idea that public access and depiction adds unnecessary pressure on public officials and impedes their ability to do their jobs well. It is under this pretext that The Fog of War is that much more provocative and welcome as we engage in two conflicts in our own generation.

McNamara withstood significant criticism for his willingness to speak so candidly (painfully at times, as made apparent in the video), though he did refrain from providing commentary on the current conflicts, another time honored expectation of former officials. I was most impressed, though, with the eleven lessons he proposes in the movie, and which consist of the main drive of the documentary. Those lessons are;

  1. Empathize with your enemy
  2. Rationality will not save us
  3. There’s something beyond one’s self
  4. Maximize efficiency
  5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
  6. Get the data
  7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
  8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
  9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
  10. Never say never
  11. You can’t change human nature

Not all of his lessons agree with my own philosophy, but they constitute an admirable respect for human life and are based on sound reason. Interspersed throughout the documentary, between breaks as individual lessons are highlighted and explained, is incredibly moving rhetoric, bordering on a kind of ‘soft confession,’ wherein McNamara never comes out and apologizes, but comes very close. His forthright commentary and candor seem unmatched in modern politics, where the veil between the public and their servants in office seems to have grown into a full blown curtain, at times one made of solid steel.

I hope that the lessons that McNamara advances are critically considered in the halls of Congress as well as the White House, especially as the separation of powers is eroding. It is unfortunate that the former Secretary of Defense has received criticisms from both sides of the aisle (as either disclosing too much or being guilty himself), but his courageous honesty, at times openly emotional, is something I think our elected representatives would do well to imitate.

One of the most poignant moments comes early in the film, when he uses biblical imagery to describe the horrifically self-destructive tendencies that exist for those in power. After having been told of how close we came to nuclear annihilation, he insists that such an act would have been to “bring the temple down around us.” He is referring to Samson, who (some say arrogantly) destroyed the temple of the Philistines by collapsing the pillars to which he was bound as a captive. The details are less important, but it struck me in the sense that we often take this American experiment as an item of worship, thinking it beyond reproach and worthy of the highest praise and immune to criticism. However, as popular sovereignty erodes and we inch closer to the very concentration of power our Founders liberated us from, it only takes one arrogant asshole to bring the whole thing crashing down around us.

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