Deja Viewing

"If you went to the CIA today and said u2018How is the situation today…?' I think they would say its worse. You see it in the desertion rate, you see it in the morale…you see it in the difficulty to recruit people…you see it in the gradual loss of population control. Many of us in private would say that things are not good, they've gotten worse. Now while we say this in private and not in public…there are facts available that find their way into the press."

This summation of the war was delivered by the Secretary of Defense to the President from Texas. It did not involve Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush. The conversation took place on June 9, 1964 between Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Like so many other aspects of The Fog of War, this passage is chilling in its familiarity. A video autobiography of the life of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War derives its name from a segment in which McNamara uses the expression to explain the disorienting effect of war on rational thought, as a way of explaining a certain type of madness that overcomes human rationality.

The film is a compelling view of the life span of Robert McNamara. It examines his childhood, his family, his years at universities as both student and professor, his U.S. Army Air Corp service in WW II, his meteoric rise to the Presidency of the Ford Motor Company and his fateful selection by President John F. Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Defense.

The film begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis and McNamara's revelation that in the end "We lucked out!" He expresses a firm conviction against nuclear proliferation and the policy of permitting any one man to launch a nuclear holocaust. He concludes with this admonition: Empathize with your enemy. "We must try to put ourselves inside their skin, and look at us through their eyes just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions."

Most of the time is spent focusing upon the Vietnam War and McNamara's role in it. The parallels between that experience and our present debacle in Iraq are inescapable to even the most skeptical viewer.

Throughout the film, one is struck by the dichotomy of McNamara's reactions to death. At times he a statistician discussing numbers killed as if dealing with a high school math problem. At other times he appears shaken and repentant. He discusses methodically his role in the deliberate firebombing of Japanese cities which burned to death tens of thousands of Japanese civilians in WW II. Candidly, he admits that if the United States had lost the war he and others would have been tried as war criminals and concedes that they were. Yet, he is visibly shaken in recalling the death of President Kennedy, and makes the bizarre description of Arlington National Cemetery as "hauntingly beautiful." He describes how, as President of Ford Motor Company, he was determined to reduce motor vehicle deaths and injuries, yet he relays Vietnam era casualties and the incineration suicide of Quaker protester Norman Morrison outside of McNamara's Pentagon office without any apparent impact.

Despite viewer expectation, McNamara refuses to open up completely about his Vietnam era knowledge, stating that he will be damned if he does, but prefers to be damned if he doesn't. He is reflective of the need to stop war, but defends his own contributions to it as Cold War necessities.

The film is shot in a unique and riveting style which features taped telephone conversations between both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and McNamara, historic publications and news footage. McNamara is the only subject interviewed, but becomes the hub of a wheel of historical figures featured.

McNamara makes the following argument regarding the projection of American power abroad:

"What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I don't think we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us…. If we can't persuade nations of comparable values of the merits of our cause we'd better re-examine our thinking."

Something else which strikes the viewer is the unmistakable resemblance between the young McNamara and the current Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The slicked back hair, the button down collar shirts and thin ties, the rimless spectacles, the deliberate public disinformation and the air of disdain for those deemed less intelligent. Then there is this piece of advice from McNamara which Rumsfeld has so efficiently absorbed: "Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question you wish had been asked of you."

With the Iraq war raging, Under Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz left his post to assume the Presidency of The World Bank. With the Vietnam conflict at its peak in 1968, Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara retired to become the President of the World Bank.

CAUTION: This film contains scenes which may cause the viewer to experience dj vu.

July 18, 2005