In Errol Morris’ The Fog of War the main point that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tries to make is that he did his best with his power. As a reasonable man that advised presidents, McNamara had many difficult decisions to make. The outcome of these decisions often resulted in many deaths. He says his actions were necessary for the good of the United States. However, Robert McNamara is not a sympathetic character, he shows little regret for his actions, and the lessons he teaches are the lessons of a hawk and not a dove.
The regret of an eighty-six year old man might make for sympathetic viewing. But Robert McNamara’s regret is rarely expressed. He comes off as too sure of himself, with dark, slick haired, glasses and an unsympathetic corporate manner. He is quick to deflect embarrassing questions about his personal responsibility for the debacle in Vietnam (Holden). McNamara’s stone cold demeanor does little to portray him as a sympathetic character.
McNamara resists all regret and never apologizes for any of his past actions. He does admit mistakes, but insists that his morality was never compromised. At one point in the film, McNamara discusses the WWII firebombing of Tokyo that killed one hundred thousand civilians. When asked about his part in this outcome, he responds: “Well, I was part of a mechanism that, in a sense, recommended it…[General Curtis] LeMay said if we lost the war that we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He… and I’d say I… were behaving as war criminals” (“Memorable Quotes”). McNamara seems stuck between knowing the nature of his mistakes and actually accepting them. Any regret McNamara feels is hidden under a cold demeanor and carefully chosen responses.
The full title of the film is The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and these lessons help show how complicated McNamara really is.
Some of the lessons sound like the words of a man of peace: “empathize with your enemy, rationality will not save us, there’s something beyond one’s self, belief and seeing are both often wrong, be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.” Some of the other lessons show McNamara’s true hawk nature: “proportionality should be a guideline in war, maximize efficiency, get the data, never say never, and in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil,” (“The Fog of War”). The fact that war is numbers and not people, along with his willingness to do evil proves that he is nothing but a hawk.
Though Errol Morris’ film presents a fair view of a complicated man, Robert McNamara is an unsympathetic character that refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. His decisions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and he even admits that some were wrong. Robert McNamara should not be viewed as an American hero or even a good advisor. He should be viewed as a man who foolishly believed that evil acts could bring about good ones.
“The Fog of War.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Jan 2007. 21 Jan 2007.
Holden, Stephen. “McNamara, Looking Back at Vietnam and Other Battles.” New York
Times. 19 December 2003. 21 January 2007. <http://movies2.nytimes.com/2003/12/19/movies/19WAR.html?ex=1169528400&en=134efeca290d0448&ei=5070>.
“Memorable Quotes from The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S.
McNamara.” Internet Movie Database. 2007. 21 January 2007. <http://imdb.com/title/tt0317910/quotes>.