After 40 years, we should all be ready to forgive and, ah, remember. But Robert S. McNamara probably never will win this critic's heart or mind.
And Errol Morris's polished documentary, even with the dual bonus of an Oscar and Philip Glass's primordially appropriate music, is too good for the former whiz kid, defense secretary, World Bank president, and war criminal.
The film is very, very good indeed. At times, it does magical things to you. For example, on the strength of old aerial footage and Glass's wings of song, you find yourself breathlessly high above old battlefields: Tokyo after the fire bombings, Vietnam during the carpet bombings.
Then you come to. You resist calling them "battlefields." Killing fields is more like it: death raining down from on high. Just the sort of the thing that was our hero's specialty, as the film makes clear.
The Fog of War gives McNamara a podium to say the equivalent of "mistakes were made," the doubly passive voice of regret. Occasionally he goes beyond this, though. He concedes that his World War II command, most of all the fiery, ruthless, arguably wacko Curtis LeMay --- who ramrodded the firebombing strategy and directed the subsequent A-bomb attacks --- might have been guilty of war crimes.
McNamara implicates himself, but he does pull back a bit. "I was part of a mechanism..." These mechanics were good, too: One hundred thousand incinerated in Tokyo, and that was just the dress rehearsal.
The big scenes are set in Vietnam, of course. McNamara tells us that on his watch the US dropped more tonnage on that theater than on all of Europe during World War II. We aging peaceniks can take solace in this matter-of-factness. For years we marshaled the same little fact to convey the horror of the war. We did the same by citing 2 or 3 million Southeast Asian war dead. Now as we watch the documentary, we hope viewers will consider the new source --- the man so many of us loved to hate --- and start tearing down the strangely American wall of ignorance.
At the end, Morris lets us all down, however. He doesn't nail his subject to the wall. He doesn't ask enough of the right questions. He does finish off with a mild challenge, as he did on Oscars night by saying the US went down a "rabbit hole" in Vietnam and may be headed down another one.
Though Morris said "millions died," his metaphor hits the ground like a dud. It implies a trap, something the hapless fall into and can't free themselves from. The term isn't entirely wrong, but --- like Ken Burns/Dr. Mesmer flipping the daguerreotypes before our credulous eyes --- it takes the edges off. It doesn't deliver the resplendent beastliness of the American Century.
Here are some items Morris could have thrown at McNamara, if not at the Oscars crowd. He could have, for example, explored the "sideshows" the old defense secretary dealt with, directly or indirectly.
Take the tragedy of Indonesia in the 1960s. In 1967, the ever-mechanical McNamara sent a memo to President Lyndon Johnson reporting on a "significant shift in Indonesia's political orientation." The Secretary told how General Suharto had "put down a Communist-inspired coup" and "eliminate[d] the 3 million member Indonesian Communist Party as an effective political organization." He detailed how US military aid had helped Suharto win.
"A year and a half ago," wrote McNamara, "Indonesia posed an ominous threat... [but now] General Suharto's government is steering Indonesia back toward a posture that promises peace and stability in Southeast Asia." Do you students of history notice anything missing? Like any mention of a million "communists" --- labor activists, teachers, peasants --- murdered in the name of "peace and stability"?
And there was so much more on McNamara's plate back then. Look just at Latin America. The Fog of War justly makes much of the Cuban Missile Crisis and McNamara's role (while ignoring the provocative US missiles in Turkey at the time, and the still-relevant American occupation of Guantanamo). But the US was mucking around in Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Dominican Republic, and yes, Haiti.
The whiz kids were all about empire: crushing independence movements worldwide under the cloak of a high-temperature Cold War. (By the way, we should hear more about McNamara's mixed record at the World Bank: a voice for ending global poverty, but a prop to global, predatory capitalism.)
Did I mention you should go see this film?
Yes, watch McNamara closely. Take the kids, too, and tell them how to spot a true national threat: the inability to come clean absolutely, the resistance to telling the whole truth.
Compare the man to other war criminals who've come tantalizingly close to deserving absolution --- like the late Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich. Consider cosmic scofflaws like Henry Kissinger, too, and ponder how America's most wanted can survive politically. How they get weeks before the camera, but never their day in court.
Well, at least McNamara is making an effort. He's talking the talk, not merely shooting his mouth off. Progress comes slowly sometimes.
Errol Morris may not have captured him once and for all. True, McNamara's an expert on not getting pinned down. The film is one of those humane traps, and that's far, far better than revenge.
But let's ask deeper questions while the combatant is detained.