Tim Blair


New Criterion



Wednesday, March 10, 2004
THE FOG OF WAR, the documentary life of Robert McNamara, is hard going.

It's two hours of McNamara looking straight out of the screen at us with the dead eyes of the incurably self-satisfied. The only interruptions are archival photos or film, and the off-stage voice of the interviewer/director.

McNamara had an interesting career. He was Secretary for Defense for seven years under two Democrat Presidents, appointed by Kennedy and eventually sacked by Johnson.

He was the ultimate technocratic manager, the numbers man, counter of bombs and bodies an anything else that measures the progress of war, an art he developed on the staff of Curtis LeMay during the air wars against Europe and Japan. It's not the job for someone who wants to be a hero, or to believe in heroes.

The film is McNamara's justification for his life, and he has been criticised for dodging some of the big questions of responsibility for things done while he was in office, especially the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He can't remember who ordered it, but the records, apparently, say that he did.

The fact is, McNamara's responses to these questions are very much Democrat responses. His axioms of good warmanship, around which the director purports to organise the film, are trite, and woefully inadequate for the big questions, like why we should go to war, and when.

He advises us to know (or "empathise with" in Mc-speak) our enemy, not to rush in to war, collect information, and so on. All of this makes him look a damn sight smarter than LeMay, whose simple philosophy was to stamp on anyone who looked like an enemy and to hell with the consequences.

McNamara fails so badly because he is incapable of strategic thought about geo-political goals. This man has been a technocrat all his life, in the Air Force, Ford, the White House and, finally the World Bank, more a diplomatic than a managerial task.

When Kennedy fingered him for Defense he had just been appointed Ford's CEO. He never learned what it was like to carry the ultimate responsibility, to set the goals as well as the means.

Now, when the questions are put to him, we find only cliche, with occasional outbursts of old man's sentimentality. He was a senior staffer as the US air force was systematically fire-bombing Japanese cities, then nuking them. LeMay knew why he was doing it, to save American lives, and indifferent to the consequences for the Japanese. Was he wrong? You get the impression McNamara is still working on it.

He has made a feature of meeting the US's old opponents, in Cuba and Vietnam, to review the policies he served.

So with the North Vietnamese autocrats he is impressed with their will to resist, and their nationalist credentials. He forgets entirely the credentials of the majority of north and south Vietnamese whose future was hijacked by these ruthless men. The question of how such powerless majorities can be helped to withstand determined minorities has lost whatever interest it had for McNamara.

How much was freedom from Stalinism for the Vietnamese really worth? How far was it made unachievable by domestic politics? Were there better means available than those used? The answers seem easy now, but we're facing them again in Iraq, plus WMDs.

In the end, Robert McNamara is a very uninteresting, if very talented, man.

If you've never heard of the air war in Europe, and Vietnam happened while you were too zonked to notice, this film is worth seeing.

If it were half as long it would be worth seeing for its really novel material, the sound quotes from the tape-recordings of conversations between Kennedy, Johnson and their advisers.

Wait for the video. Then you can hit the stop button any time you want.