Robert McNamara on the wrongs our armies do

The Fog of War (2003)
Directed by Errol Morris
103 minutes, rated PG

‘Hear me more plainly.
I have in equal balance justly weighed
What wrongs our arms may do, what wrongs we suffer,
And find our griefs heavier than our offences’.
Henry IV, Part 2. Act 4, sc. 1.

Can we ever really trust what old men say about their deeds in war? Robert S. McNamara is 87 and a former secretary of defense for two US presidents, Kennedy and Johnson. In Errol Morris’s fascinating and engrossing film, which won the Oscar for best documentary last week, he attempts to weigh his – and America’s – griefs and offences. The film presents an uncommon opportunity: rarely do those who exercised enormous power allow us to look in their eyes and judge whether they’re lying.

For those who protested the war in Vietnam, which includes Morris, McNamara’s name was synonymous with America’s commitment to that war. He was believed a hawk who pushed an unsure Johnson towards escalation after Kennedy’s assassination. And yet here he sits, an old man with steely eyes and many secrets, staring down the barrell of Morris’s camera, telling us the US administration got it wrong in Vietnam and that they never understood their enemies; that the American fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945, during which 100,000 were burned to death in one night, amounted to a war crime in which he participated; that the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam might have constituted a crime against humanity but he doesn’t remember authorising it; and that he stayed in the defense job for seven years, during much of which he disagreed with the American decision to wage war there.

And he may not be lying. Morris has audio tapes of him telling Johnson on the phone that: ‘the frank answer is we don’t know what’s going on over there (in Vietnam)’. He has tape of a Kennedy cabinet meeting in October 1963 where McNamara, just back from Vietnam, argues for the removal of the 16,000 US military ‘advisers’ in Vietnam by 1965. ‘We need a way to get out of Vietnam and this is a way of doing it,’ McNamara tells Kennedy. There is also tape of Johnson telling McNamara: ‘I want somebody to go over there and bring back a plan to whup the hell out of them’. This hardly sounds like a man who had to be pushed into making war.

The film is presented as ‘eleven lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara’. These are framed as the fruit of McNamara’s own self examination. ‘I’m at an age where I can look back and derive some conclusions… My aim in life is to try to learn… to develop the lessons and pass them on.’

The lessons range from the banal to the bleeding obvious, but they serve as a neat organisational device and they lend the film an exploratory air. The first lesson – empathise with your enemy – allows Morris to discuss the Cuban missile crisis, where McNamara says the extraordinarily belligerent General Curtis LeMay wanted to go in and destroy Cuba (as in the film Thirteen Days). McNamara says the reason they didn’t is that a State department official, Llewellyn Thompson, knew the Soviet president Kruschev well enough to guess where his limits were, and that allowed a deal to be done.      McNamara admits they never understood the Vietnamese. ln the mid-90’s he went to Vietnam for a series of discussions with his former adversaries, one of whom told him: ‘You must never have read a history book to think we were ever the pawns of China or Russia’.

The flm makes no mention of Iraq and current US politics, but it doesn’t have to – every frame is redolent with inferences and warnings about the mistakes that men make, and the lies they tell themselves, when they decide to wage war. McNamara has recently spoken for the first time publicly about the latest Iraqi war: ‘It’s just wrong what we’re doing,’ he was quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail. ‘It’s morally wrong, it’s politically wrong, it’s economically wrong.’

At one point in the film he says that in Vietnam, ‘none of our allies supported us’. ‘If we can’t persuade our allies of the efficacy of our aims, we’d better examine our reasoning.’ At this point I wanted to shout at Mr McNamara that ‘some of your allies did support you in that war and there are 500 Australian war graves to prove it’. Griefs and offences, indeed.

Postscript: The official number of Australians who died in the Vietnam conflict, according to the Australian War Memorial, was 521. Robert McNamara died in July 2009, aged 93.