The Fog of War

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The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a documentary film directed by Errol Morris. The film was released in December 2003 and won many awards, including the 2003 Oscar for Best Documentary, as well as the documentary of the year award from "the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics, and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics." [1]. It is worth noting that the eleven lessons that give the film its structure and name were derived from the interviews conducted by Errol Morris and were not explicitly stated or created by Robert McNamara.

Robert McNamara[edit]

  • Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he's speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn't destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is don't make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. There will be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations.
  • At my age, 85, I'm at age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on.
  • Kennedy was trying to keep us out of war. I was trying to help him keep us out of war. And General Curtis LeMay, whom I served under as a matter of fact in World War II, was saying "Let's go in, let's totally destroy Cuba."
  • In Thompson's mind was this thought: Khrushchev's gotten himself in a hell of a fix. He would then think to himself, "My God, if I can get out of this with a deal that I can say to the Russian people: 'Kennedy was going to destroy Castro and I prevented it.'" Thompson, knowing Khrushchev as he did, thought Khrushchev will accept that. And Thompson was right. That's what I call empathy. 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.
  • In the first message, Khrushchev said this: "We and you ought not to pull on the ends of a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence."
  • I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.
  • The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are at 15 minute alert to be launched by the decision of one human being?
  • Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.
  • LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
  • I can still see it. There's a love seat, two armchairs with a lamp table in between. Jack Kennedy is sitting in one armchair and Bobby Kennedy's sitting in the other. "Mr. President, it's absurd, I'm not qualified." "Look, Bob," he said, "I don't think there's any school for Presidents either."
    • McNamara on his reaction to being offered the position of the Secretary of Defense.
  • I called the superintendent of Arlington Cemetery. And he and I walked over those grounds. They're hauntingly beautiful grounds, white crosses all in a row. And finally I thought I'd found the exact spot, the most beautiful spot in the cemetery. I called Jackie at the White House and asked her to come out there, and she immediately accepted. And that's where the President is buried today. A park service ranger came up to me and said that he had escorted President Kennedy on a tour of those grounds a few weeks before. And Kennedy said, "That was the most beautiful spot in Washington." That's where he's buried.
  • If you went to the C.I.A. and said "How is the situation today in South Vietnam?" I think they would say it's 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 public, there are facts available that find their way in the press. If we're going to stay in there, if we're going to go up the escalating chain, we're going to have to educate the people, Mr. President. We haven't done so yet. I'm not sure now is exactly the right time.
    • This conversation was also taped by Johnson, on June 9, 1964.
  • Let me go back one moment. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the end, I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam, we didn't know them well enough to empathize. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.
  • What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning.
  • Were those who issued the approval to use Agent Orange criminals? Were they committing a crime against humanity? Let's look at the law. Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not. We don't have clear definitions of that kind. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I'm not really sure I authorized Agent Orange. I don't remember it, but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was Secretary.
  • I formed the hypothesis that each of us could have achieved our objectives without the terrible loss of life. And I wanted to test that by going to Vietnam.
    • McNamara, on his 1995 meeting in Vietnam with the former Foreign Minister of Vietnam
  • "Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you'd had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn't you know that? Don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us." - Thach, former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, 1995, as recalled by McNamara.
  • Norman Morrison was a Quaker. He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing. He came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline. Burned himself to death below my office. He held a child in his arms, his daughter. Passersby shouted, "Save the child!" He threw the child out of his arms, and the child lived and is alive today. His wife issued a very moving statement: 'Human beings must stop killing other human beings.' And that's a belief that I shared. I shared it then and I believe it even more strongly today. How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.
  • We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don't know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There's a wonderful phrase: 'the fog of war.' What "the fog of war" means is: war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.
  • The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 offensive strategic nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are on a 15 minute alert to be launched at the decision of *one* human being?
  • Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.
  • I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits. There's a quote from T.S. Eliot that I just love:

    We shall not cease from exploring
    And at the end of our exploration
    We will return to where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    Now that's in a sense where I'm beginning to be.

Dialogue[edit]

McNamara: I was on the island of Guam in his command in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children.
Morris: Were you aware this was going to happen?
McNamara: Well, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient. i.e. Not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but more efficient in weakening the adversary. I wrote one report analyzing the efficiency of the B—29 operations. The B—29 could get above the fighter aircraft and above the air defense, so the loss rate would be much less. The problem was the accuracy was also much less. Now I don't want to suggest that it was my report that led to, I'll call it, the firebombing. It isn't that I'm trying to absolve myself of blame. I don't want to suggest that it was I who put in LeMay's mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed. But, anyhow, that's what he did. He took the B—29s down to 5,000 feet and he decided to bomb with firebombs.

Kennedy: The advantage to taking them out is?
McNamara: We can say to the Congress and people that we do have a plan for reducing the exposure of U.S. combat personnel.
Kennedy: My only reservation about it is if the war doesn't continue to go well, it will look like we were overly optimistic.
McNamara: We need a way to get out of Vietnam, and this is a way of doing it.
[This conversation was taped on October 2, 1963. This tape, together with a series of conversations between McNamara and President Johnson together depict McNamara as being less pro-war than he is often charactarized as being.]

Johnson: I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the President thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.
McNamara: The problem is...
Johnson: Then come the questions: how in the hell does McNamara think, when he's losing a war, he can pull men out of there?
[This conversation was taped by President Johnson on February 25, 1964.]

McNamara: It was just confusion, and events afterwards showed that our judgment that we'd been attacked that day was wrong. It didn't happen. And the judgment that we'd been attacked on August 2nd was right. We had been, although that was disputed at the time. So we were right once and wrong once. Ultimately, President Johnson authorized bombing in response to what he thought had been the second attack; it hadn't occurred but that's irrelevant to the point I'm making here. He authorized the attack on the assumption it had occurred, and his belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication they would not stop short of winning. We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs. We see incorrectly or we see only half of the story at times.
Morris: We see what we want to believe.
McNamara: You're absolutely right. Belief and seeing, they're both often wrong.

Morris: When you talk about the responsibility for something like the Vietnam War, whose responsibility is it?
McNamara: It's the president's responsibility. I don't want to fail to recognize the tremendous contribution I think Johnson made to the country. I don't want to put the responsibility for Vietnam on his shoulders alone, but I do — I am inclined to believe that if Kennedy had lived, he would have made a difference. I don't think we would have had 500,000 men there.

Related Quotes[edit]

  • On his way out of the studio, Errol Morris remarked that last August in Waco, Texas (where he was shooting a Nike commercial), he looked up in the airport and saw Karl Rove standing in front of him. Morris introduced himself as the film-maker of "The Fog of War." With something more than cordiality, Rove responded: "That's one of my favorite movies. I recommend it to everybody I know."
  • My wife, Julia Sheehan, sees McNamara as 'the flying Dutchman,' destined to travel the earth looking for redemption, absolution, whatever. Many political writers have been less kind. They see his trip to Vietnam, to Hanoi, as an attempt to justify a war that can never be justified. And they see his trips to Havana and to Moscow as facile attempts to rewrite history. I see it differently. There is something, for me, deeply moving and interesting about McNamara's attempt to figure out what happened, who he is and what he's done. Unusual among public figures, he has embarked on an historical investigation of himself. But doesn’t he know what he’s done? Call it the Cartesian error: the belief that we have privileged access to our own minds, that we somehow know what we're thinking or what we were thinking. Can’t I just look 'upstairs' and summarize what I find up there? I don't think so.
  • I've always wondered where explanations end and excuses begin. And is there a difference between excuses and explanations ... is an excuse a bad or self-serving explanation? I don't know. Maybe Newton's Law is an excuse for why bodies just stay at rest or in motion unless acted on by some external force. I look at the McNamara story as the-fog-of-war-ate-my-homework excuse. After all, if war is so complex, then no one is responsible.
  • "A friend of mine has said, 'You can never trust someone who doesn't talk a lot, because how else could you know what they're thinking?' This could be true. There's a belief that if you sit people down and you let them talk that they will reveal who they are. And then this also contrary to the whole idea about how you're supposed to investigate stuff, how you're supposed to interview people. After all, you're supposed to ask difficult questions. You're supposed to - particularly if you want to find something out, you're supposed to back the subject against the wall, press them hard and get them to 'fess up in some way or another. This is part of many of the criticisms that I heard about my film of Robert S. McNamara. That he should have been subjected to much tougher questions."
  • I had a lot of trouble with McNamara in the course of making this movie. Horrible disagreements about stuff I had put in the movie that he did not want in there. One of the major disagreements concerned the lessons in the film. There are 11 lessons. And he repeatedly said, 'You know, Errol, those are not my lessons. They are your lessons.' And I said, 'Yeah, yeah, they are. But they're extracted, of course, from things that you've said,' things that McNamara said, which is indeed the case. Perhaps not the lessons that McNamara would have chosen, but then, he was not directing the movie. I think that the lessons are all ironic. It's very odd to me that people talk about the film and they talk about the lessons without pointing out that there might be intended ironies with each and every one of them. But yes, they are for me ironic, particularly the last one in the movie: You can't change human nature. It tells you that all of the other lessons are valueless, that the human situation is indeed hopeless."
  • I saw the movie as a collaboration between the two of us. I never saw the movie, as I was making it, and I don't see the movie now, as my attempt to quote-unquote "get," go after, Robert S. McNamara. I saw it as an attempt to try to understand McNamara - to answer questions about McNamara.
  • This thing is heavy. I'd like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films. Thank you so very, very, very much! I thought it would never happen. I'd like to thank my very good friends at Sony Pictures Classics, Michael Barker, Tom Bernard. No one would get to see this movie without them. My two producers - Michael Williams, Julie Ahlberg. Couldn't have made the movie without them either. My long suffering editors - Charlie Silver, Brad Fuller. And Karen Schmeer and Doug Abel, thank you also very much. And believe it or not, Robert McNamara, with whom, if he hadn't done it there would have been no film. Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again. And if people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I've done some damn good here. Thank you very, very much.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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