McNamara, Sticking to His Guns in 'The Fog of War'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003

Is it me, or is Robert S. McNamara actually turning into Gollum? I think it's arguably the latter: at age 87, his luxuriant, brilliantined hair thinned to a few scraggily strands still moussed back, out of vanity, across a pate that somehow seems pasty, the odd, patchy discoloration here or there, the skin infirm, the eyes bright in the pallor of a desiccated face, the sense of robust confidence that he once radiated long since vanished. He looks like a reptilian cave dweller, full of seductive rhythms in a singsongy voice, his body language weirdly compelling.

Is it the tarnish of evil, which also explained Gollum's devolution? Or maybe, gee, the guy just got old. Anyway, that's the conundrum at the center of "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," Errol Morris's mesmerizing confrontation with the ex-whiz kid who sat in the engineer's cab through much of the war in Vietnam. For many, it'll be easy to impart on the current wizened wizard's sullied flesh a metaphor for contagion.

What emerges from the picture, however, is something unlikely: It's not an essay in how different the man is from the rest of us, but how much the same. He's old, he's vain, he's a blend of ego and humility, pride and passion, optimism and pessimism. There's a word for this: human.

The movie will probably work best for those of a generation that didn't come to cognizance until after the dust of Vietnam settled. For those viewers, it seems to offer secrets. Yes, Virginia, in World War II, American bombers dumped tons of incendiaries on Japanese cities, the object, my dear, to kill all the Japanese men, women and children. (I was in an Army movie house in the late '60s watching "Battle of Britain," and when the movie showed London burning from the vantage point of a German bomber, the elderly guy sitting in front of me leaned over to his wife and said, "That's just what the Jap cities looked like.")

If you didn't know all that, "The Fog of War" is a platform by which you can learn it, for McNamara was an Air Corps statistician who helped with the planning of that particular campaign. He explains here, for you to accept or reject, his reasons: He was doing his duty. We were in a war. You had to end the war faster, and the faster you ended it, the fewer people died.

But for those of my generation, the true resonance in the film may be in the constant juxtaposition between the then and the now of the McNamara life. For certainly there's ample documentation, and Morris has been a bulldog about digging it out. Thus McNamara of old from archival footage is a glossy, brilliant figure, a little smirky, smarter by far than any of his interlocutors and therefore always grinning faintly at their stupid questions. Then he transmogrified into the creature described above. You cannot look upon that transformation without a shudder.

The movie tells his life story primarily from McNamara's point of view. It's not a radical document; if you care to supply irony, then I suppose it's ironic; if you're still a believer, you'll see no reason to diminish your faith in the McNamara interpretations.

He was a brilliant Californian who was officered up out of the Harvard faculty in The War, where he went to work for then-Col. Curtis LeMay and first began diddling with the calculus of destruction. He plotted while LeMay burned the Japanese cities. He thought he'd return to Harvard after the war, but industry beckoned and he was credited with turning around Ford Motor Co. as its most visionary executive. He always mastered the data.

He was famous when President Kennedy tapped him for secretary of defense and soon set about mastering the data. But one of the lessons he learned the hard way was that you can't expect the rational. Thus he put his full brainpower into the issue of Vietnam and just went more and more wrong. Ultimately, a half-million Americans were over there, they were dying at 300 per week, and nobody -- not even McNamara -- could figure out what to do next. Ultimately, he just quit and went into a self-imposed exile, the most reviled man in America.

This represents his attempt at a second act in an American life, but it's on his terms. Do you expect contrition? You will be disappointed. If he has confessed, it's only to his priest or his shrink or his wife. Here, he's old, combative, brilliant and very much battered by life. He just tells you how it was as he saw it, no matter how loud Philip Glass's music hums and buzzes on the soundtrack and how loudly Morris yells at him. He's Bob McNamara. He's a whiz kid. He's not giving anything up.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (95 minutes, at Bethesda Landmark Row and Visions Bar Noir) is rated PG-13 for intensity and discussions of war and destruction.

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