S. McNamara, Colin Powell & "The Fog of War"
By Bernard Weiner, The
Secretary of State Colin Powell should be forced to view
the new Errol Morris "Fog of War" film. You may have heard
about it: a documentary interview with former Defense Secretary
Robert S. McNamara, plus lots of historical film footage and
dynamite audiotape recordings of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson
talking frankly with McNamara and other advisors about Cuba
In "Fog of War" - which opened recently nationwide - McNamara,
in his mid-80s, speaks agonizingly of his moral culpability
in World War II and later in Vietnam in the '60s and early-'70s.
McNamara saw himself as a loyal soldier, who told the truth
to his boss, the President of the United States - that the
Vietnam war was unwinnable, that the best thing the U.S. could
hope for was an endless stalemate - but who was overruled.
Rather than resign in protest, as a way of perhaps saving
tens of thousands of American (and many hundreds of thousands
of Vietnamese civilian) lives, he stayed on as a technocrat,
positively spinning the war news while leading a disastrous
campaign he knew made no sense. His soul was forever tarnished.
Secretary Powell could have saved his soul when he came
to realize that the nuclear-related "intelligence" being used
by the Bush Administration to pave its way to war in Iraq
was "bullshit" (his term). But, a loyal soldier to his boss,
he has chosen to stick out his four-year term. Similar to
what happened to McNamara, Powell early on tried to ameleriorate
the worst policies of Rumsfeld and his neo-con cabal at the
Defense Department, and maybe Powell still believes he's playing
that role now.
But when Powell tried to convince an unbelieving U.N. Security
Council that war on Iraq was justified on the basis of the
embarrassingly flawed WMD "evidence" provided him by Rumsfeld's
crew and the White House, the Secretary of State lost all
moral credibility in that world body and among those domestically
who still had any faith left in him. Any slim chance he had
for a potential presidency vanished. (It's fascinating to
speculate what the primaries would look like today if Powell's
conscience had led him to resign in order to run against Bush.)
You may wonder why I'm urging Powell to see "Fog of War"
when McNamara's counterpart is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
It's easy: Rumsfeld totally accepts - and really seems to
enjoy - the making of "pre-emptive" war and accepting whatever
goodies and control can accrue to the United States. The neo-conservative
Rumsfeld simply would be unable, and unwilling, to deal with
some of McNamara's more maturely worked-out rules for how
successfully to conduct foreign and military policy: "Be prepared
to re-examine your reasoning," "Empathize with your enemy,"
"get the data," and so on.
The Sorrow and the Pity
"The Fog of War" can be viewed on a number of intersecting
levels. One can view it as a history lesson - for example,
the WWII firebombing of Japanese cities, wiping out hundreds
of thousands of innocent civilians, long prior to the A-bomb
attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the Cuban Missile Crisis
of 1962, where, as McNamara says, we escaped nuclear war largely
by luck. Both were campaigns in which McNamara was deeply
involved. In understanding the logic of battle in World War
II, and the tense atomic game of chicken being played in Cuba,
one comes to understand a bit more the universe and rationale
in which McNamara and his generation lived and worked.
One can view the film in political terms - both the complex
politics in which McNamara and JFK and LBJ, engaged, and in
how these policies and intrigues resonate today in the Bush
Administration. (More of that below.)
One can view the documentary in military terms - learning
how the technology of war influenced bombing runs, for example,
over Japan and Vietnam: bringing the B/29 bomber planes down
from their normal 23,000-feet release level (where their accuracy
was questionable) to 5000 feet (better targeting but losing
more airplanes and crews). Fascinating stuff, all.
I stand in awe of the artful way Morris weaves these strands
into a compelling documentary tapestry. But, as I think Morris
intended, I found myself concentrating mostly on this most
complex and interesting character, whose middle name ("Strange")
McNamara is boastful and proud at certain moments. But the
overwhelming impression he leaves is that of a broken, haunted
man. He looks like Mr. Death, and no wonder; in many ways,
he was directly or indirectly responsible for the killing
and maiming of millions of Americans and Japanese and Vietnamese.
He can't quite bring himself to confess openly about the
depths of his moral and spiritual failings. Instead, he talks
about the "evil" that one sometimes has to do in order to
do "good." One reads between the lines when he talks about
the "errors" and "mistakes" that governmental and military
leaders invariably make in the confusions and chaos that is
He ponders whether, if the U.S. had lost World War II, he
and the others who planned the firebombing of Japanese cities
would have been put on trial for crimes against humanity.
He suspects that he would have been in the war-crimes dock,
along with Gen. Curtis LeMay and others, as a result of Operation
Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, when the U.S. Air Force dropped
more bombs in that one campaign than were dropped in all of
World War II. (He asks a good question: "What makes it immoral
if you lose and not immoral if you win?")
At one and the same time, McNamara is seeking absolution
(from us, representative Americans) for his unnamed sins,
and also wants to keep silent even now about many of the unconscionable
policy-atrocities in which he participated and, at times,
initiated. One gets the distinct impression that if he were
to openly talk about those secrets, he would have to swallow
the black revolver. He's that delicately poised on the razor's
edge of conscience.
His eyes tear on occasion when he tells his stories, but
mostly not about the mass-deaths for which he was at least
partially responsible, but rather when he talks about specific
individuals with whom he worked. The former head of Ford Motors
was a cold-fish technocat of warfare - members of his own
family apparently were driven to break with him about his
Vietnam policies - who was referred to in those days as "an
IBM machine with legs."
Political leaders often appear somewhat lost and remotely
connected to the world when they leave their high offices.
McNamara is such an example, in extremis; he's like a character
in a Beckett play, living out a dry, despairing life in a
grey fog, halfway between zero and void. He will die a lonely,
cracked old man, proud of many of his accomplishments - and
there were some - but dragged down by the weight of his moral
crimes and heartlessness. (The film never even goes near his
post-Vietnam tenure as the head of the World Bank.)
Robert S. McNamara emerges as a pitiable wretch that we
both understand a bit - and thus we listen to his story with
a certain sympathy - and despise, because of his unwillingness
to fully acknowledge and accept responsibility for his actions.
It's a sorrow and a pity. And you can't take your eyes off
him up there on the screen - these dead eyes seemingly inches
from your vision - precisely because of that dichotomy.
The Wrong Interviewer?
Errol Morris knows how to make stunning documentary films;
his visual eye and imagination are acute. Even though his
films center on talking-heads ("The Thin Blue Line," "Gates
of Heaven"), he's able to add poetic visual elements that
grab us and make us keep watching and listening. Sometimes
these visuals are a bit abstract and precious, but mostly
they work to keep us optically engaged while listening to
someone speak at length. In this regard, "The Fog of War"
is a work of extraordinary cinema, with a most effective Philip
Glass score, sometimes ominously insistent, at other times
ethereal and hopeful.
Morris' major mistake, I believe, was to do the interviewing
himself. His knowledge of his subject, and the details of
the contexts in which McNamara worked, appears limited mostly
to the surface issues. He hardly ever comes at the former
Secretary of Defense with responses or questions that force
McNamara into corners, and, on those occasions when he comes
close to a sensitive subject, he tends to back off.
(Morris' method of interviewing - the filmmaker in one room,
McNamara in another, both looking at monitor images of the
other right where the camera is - didn't help; the film's
Epilogue rests on an apparent telephone conversation Morris
had with McNamara after the interviews were completed, and
here more direct questions are posed. But it's too little,
too late, and telephone questions are easy to evade.)
Maybe Morris simply didn't do quite enough of his preparatory
homework. The film could have used a hard-hitting journalist,
well-versed in the realities of Vietnam politics and military
skullduggery, throwing hardball questions McNamara's way.
I say that without knowing how Morris was able to obtain
the 20+ hours of interviews with his subject; maybe McNamara,
no fool he, said he would sit for Morris only if the filmmaker
was the interrogator. Or maybe Morris saw how delicately McNamara
was poised emotionally, and didn't want to risk pushing him
over the edge, or having his subject abruptly stand up and
cancel the whole project. Who knows?
Whatever, one gets the impression that on sensitive topics,
McNamara got something of a pass, which permitted him to tell
his self-justifying version of events without being forced
to go deeper, without having to confront aspects of his personality
and behavior that resulted in horrendous consequences for
himself and millions of others.
In "The Fog of War," McNamara never makes the connection
overt between Vietnam and Iraq. But the chronology and details
of his story permit us to forge the link.
McNamara tells us that the alleged torpedo attack
on the U.S.S. Maddox in 1964 never happened, but LBJ used
it anyway as the precipating event for the open-ended Gulf
of Tonkin resolution that the Congress passed, giving the
President authority to wage full-scale war in Vietnam. George
W. Bush used lies about non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction
and supposed links to al-Qaida & 9/11 to manipulate the American
people and Congress into supporting his blank-check resolution
for war against Iraq.
"Fog of War" reveals how absolutely ignorant American
policy-makers were about Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese history,
Vietnamese politics, the Vietnamese language - and paid a
heavy price because of that lack of intimate knowledge of
the enemy and how they thought and what motivated them. The
same charge could be leveled at Bush: he has taken the U.S.
into a war against a people, and in some measure against a
branch of a major religion, about which his policymakers have
precious little knowledge or understanding. No wonder the
U.S. keeps stubbing its toes all over the Middle East. Arab-speaking
officers and policy-makers, for example, are few and far-between
- and some that can speak the language were dismissed because
they happen to be homosexual. (Talk about cutting off your
nose to spite your face!)
The U.S. moved into Vietnam prepared to fight classical
battles, and found itself bogged down in the big muddy of
guerrilla warfare, where it often was impossible to tell the
friendlies from the enemy. The result was that many frightened
G.I.s just emptied their weapons at everybody, thereby losing
the "hearts and minds" of the population even more. Under
Bush, the U.S. moved into Iraq with conventional equipment,
materiele and mind-set, and quickly found itself having to
struggle against guerrilla forces, many of whom are nationalists
fighting because they don't like being humiliated and brutalized
by their Occupiers.
Many of the "best and the brightest," McNamara among
them, told JFK and LBJ the truth about what was likely to
happen if the U.S. got engaged on the ground in 'Nam, but
their counsel was dismissed by their bosses, locked as they
were into a Cold War mental construct of a centrally-controlled
monster called World Communism; there was no room in that
worldview that could account for the strength of nationalism
in the socialist world. McNamara confesses that he, too, was
blinded by the constancy of that Cold War spotlight, and thus
had to struggle to see the war in different terms.
The same tunnel-vision sydrome was repeated, to a large
extent, when Bush orginally was contemplating his war with
Iraq; he paid no attention to those civilian and military
and intelligence officers who urged the Administration not
to attack Iraq, that it was the wrong war at the wrong time
(especially because the U.S. still had unfinished business
with al-Qaida), and that "preventive" war was a risky, possibly
self-destructive policy in the long run. Bush and his advisors
had mentally switched over from "communists" to "terrorists,"
and thus they didn't feel they have to gave much thought to
any of those objections or to the reality of Arab nationalism
and tribal/sect loyalties.
As Daniel Ellsberg noted
in his memoirs Secrets, presidents too often believe
they can force victory by their sheer will, determination,
and the technological superiority they command, and thus they
downplay the wise counsel offered by their own professional
military and intelligence officials to reconsider before making
a bad mistake. The tragedies that result - the millions killed
and wounded, the depletion of the treasury, the loss of respect
internationally, the political civil wars that accompany dissent
- degrade our culture, shred our Constitutional protections,
wreck the economy, place American national interests in great
One would have thought that America would have remembered
at least some of the lessons of Vietnam. But, no; thirty or
forty years go by, the last war's catastrophes are forgotten,
and we're at it again, making the same mistakes, with even
more disastrous consequences.
McNamara thinks this pattern is the inevitable result of
the "fog of war," where everything is moving in chaotic warpspeed
where nothing is clear and mistakes are so easy to make. But,
in the Bush Administration, with a far different agenda, the
faultline runs much deeper than that, and we all are paying
an enormous, agonizing price for our leaders' bullheaded imperial-like
obstinacy in the face of infinitely complex political realities
on the ground.
Given how difficult it is to figure out what to do, and
how wars have unforeseen and horrendously tragic consequences,
you would think that leaders would move to the war option
last, only as a desperate final resort. McNamara eventually
came to that position. The Bush boys didn't seem to give a
flying fig, making war the first, and almost only, option.
America will pay a terrible price for Bush&Co.'s misguided,
greedy, power-hungry folly.
Will Powell Learn Mc's Lesson?
In an exclusive interview
with McNamara published a few days ago, Canadian journalist
Doug Saunders put some direct questions to the former Defense
Secretary about the Vietnam/Iraq equation and received some
surprisingly frank, tough responses:
"I told him [Saunders writes] that his carefully enumerated
lists of historic lessons from Vietnam were in danger of being
ignored. He agreed, and told me that he was deeply frustrated
to see history repeating itself.
"'We're misusing our influence,' he [McNamara] said in a
staccato voice that had lost none of its rapid-fire engagement.
'It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's
politically wrong, it's economically wrong.'
"While he did not want to talk on the record about specific
military decisions made by Mr. Rumsfeld, he said the United
States is fighting a war that he believes is totally unnecessary
and has managed to destroy important relationships with potential
allies. 'There have been times in the last year when I was
just utterly disgusted by our position, the United States'
position vis-à-vis the other nations of the world'."
Are you listening, Colin Powell? Do you really want to wind
up pitied and reviled like McNamara for moral culpability,
or are there lessons you can learn from this introspective,
deeply troubled man - such as when and why to get out?
Our Secretary of State, one would like to believe, could
decide that his patriotism and conscience dictate an immediate,
pre-November departure from the Bush Administration - in order
to help stop the reimposition of the draft, keep more unjustified
"pre-emptive" wars from happening, save the lives of countless
soldiers and civilians who will die in Iraq and in other countries.
In such a circumstance, he could talk frankly with the American
people, revealing what he knows about how Bush policy was
conceived and carried out. But, while I once believed Powell
capable of such principled action, I don't think Powell now
has the courage or moral strength to do that; in short, an
imminent Powell resignation is not likely to happen. Ever
the loyal soldier, he seems content to wait out his tenure
and leave in January.
But it's possible that Powell - who admitted the other day
that Iraq probably had no WMD before the U.S. invasion - is
operating from a different agenda and timeline. He may be
biding his time, to see if Bush wins a second term in the
If a Democrat wins, Iraq policy will change and there will
be no neo-con "pre-emptive" moves on Syria and Iran - so Powell
would not have to dis his old boss. But if Bush were to win,
Powell might then summon his courage and moral core and make
a much-belated attempt to resurrect his reputation by choosing
to unload what he knows about Bush lies and possible criminal
If Powell were to do so - in, a major public address, say,
or in a Paul O'Neill-type tell-all book - the effect of his
revelations would be cataclysmic, probably leading to immediate
impeachment moves in the Congress.
Go see "The Fog of War," Colin.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations,
has taught at Western Washington University, San Diego State
University, San Francisco State University; worked as a writer-editor
with the San Francisco Chronicle; currently, he is co-editor