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December 03, 2004

Revisiting Vietnam

Alvin Tostig tells me that I must see this, too:

Something Requisitely Witty and Urbane: The Fog of War: Errol Morris'  "The Fog of War" is stunning.

Posted by DeLong at December 3, 2004 04:30 PM

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» The Fog of War from Ask Bjrn Hansen
Dylan Biles reminds me to remind you to remember to watch The Fog of War if you haven't already. Why do the government send people to war? It's not just a fascinating view into the past but also a bundle of lessons to the current administration. Of co... [Read More]

Tracked on December 6, 2004 01:51 AM


Yes. Of course you must see it. I'm surprised you haven't already. Everything Tostig says is right.

We are, remember, still living in MacNamara's world (despite the end of the Cold War). The Department still runs along the lines MacNamara set up. And MacNamara is still the best critic of what MacNamara did.

When we saw it, the only place in Washington it was playing was Visions, near Dupont Circle. Visions has now closed. I don't know where in DC films like The Fog of War will play now.

Posted by: jam at December 3, 2004 05:06 PM

October 11, 2003

FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW; Revisiting McNamara and
the War He Headed
By STEPHEN HOLDEN - New York Times

If there's one movie that ought to be studied by military and civilian leaders around the world at this treacherous historical moment, it is ''The Fog of War,'' Errol Morris's sober, beautifully edited documentary portrait of the former United States defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara. Mr. McNamara, who was 85 when the interviews that make up the bulk of the film were conducted two years ago, served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to early 1968. He has been widely vilified as a major architect of the Vietnam War, which cost more than 58,000 American lives and, according to Mr. McNamara, the lives of 3.4 million Vietnamese.

Subtitled ''Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara,'' ''The Fog of War,'' which has the first of two New York Film Festival screenings this evening, organizes his reflections into a list of maxims about war and human error, with the cumulative message suggesting that in wartime nobody in power really knows anything.

The documentary, which has a solemn, anxious score by Philip Glass, incorporates White House tapes of conversations about Vietnam that Mr. McNamara had with both presidents, along with vintage clips from World War II and Vietnam.

Stocky and slick haired, with rimless glasses and a grand corporate manner, Mr. McNamara appears to be an exceptionally articulate, self-confident man who came to this project prepared to deflect embarrassing questions about his personal responsibility for the debacle. While he readily confesses to having made serious mistakes of judgment, he will not admit to any grave moral failures.

Near the end of the film, when pressed about whether he feels guilty about Vietnam, he dances nimbly away from the question.

He also has a streak of grandstanding sentimentality. The only moment in which he betrays emotion is during a moist-eyed reminiscence of Kennedy's assassination and burial. And he goes out of his way to mention his good deeds. Before going into government, he worked for the Ford Motor Company (he was briefly the company's president), where he was instrumental in the establishment of new safety features, including car seat belts. Years later, at an antiwar protest in Washington, he made sure that the rifles of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon weren't loaded.

Mr. McNamara, who left the Defense Department in 1968, remained silent about his feelings about the Vietnam War until his 1995 memoir ''In Retrospect'' whose reflections, including the 11 lessons, are tersely recycled in the movie.

The gist of his rationalization for escalating the war is twofold. He was serving a president (Johnson) who was strongly opposed to withdrawing American troops from Southeast Asia. Shortly before leaving office in February 1968, he sent a private memo to Johnson urging a scaling down of the war but received no response.

Beyond that, he suggests in a tone sadder and wiser but not apologetic, that the complexity of war, its ''fog'' if you will, makes it all but impossible for military planners to see the whole picture, except in hindsight.

''Any military commander who is honest will admit that he makes mistakes in the application of military power,'' he declares. And he worries that because there's ''no learning period'' for nuclear weapons, which can be deployed in 15 minutes at the whim of a single individual, one mistake could end up destroying nations.

''The Fog of War,'' goes far beyond Vietnam. During World War II Mr. McNamara served as a commander under the arch-hawk Gen. Curtis Le May, who appears in old photos and film clips as a caricature of a pragmatic, cigar-chomping war-monger. Under Le May, Mr. McNamara was part of the team that made the decision to firebomb 67 Japanese cities, killing large numbers of civilians. In Tokyo alone, more than 100,000 civilians died one night in March 1945.

That was before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The lesson that came out of that, Mr. McNamara says, is that ''proportionality should be a guideline in war.'' After the war, he recalls, Le May surmised that had the United States lost World War II, he and Mr. McNamara would have been prosecuted as war criminals.

Mr. McNamara was also at Kennedy's side during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the president had to choose between answering two conflicting messages from the Soviets, one belligerent, the other more conciliatory. At the urging of the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Tommy Thompson, who knew Nikita S. Khrushchev well and understood that the Soviet leader was looking for a way to avert war while saving face, Kennedy ignored the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to destroy Cuba and responded to the softer message. It was dumb luck, he says, that averted a nuclear war. The lesson that came out of that experience is arguably the most useful of the 11: ''Empathize with your enemy.''

It was our lack of empathy, Mr. McNamara asserts, that also caused the United States to get so deeply embroiled in Vietnam. What the United States viewed as an extension of the cold war the Vietnamese regarded as a civil war. Parallels can be found between Vietnam and the current war in Iraq. Then, as now, the United States acted without the support of most of its allies. ''What makes us omniscient?'' Mr. McNamara wonders. ''We are the strongest nation in the world today, and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we'd followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning.''

None of the documentary's lessons can be described as reassuring. ''Believing and seeing are both often wrong,'' one says. ''Rationality will not save us,'' goes another. The final and saddest lesson is delivered by Mr. McNamara with a rueful, you-know-what-I-mean smile:'' ''You can't change human nature.''

Posted by: anne at December 3, 2004 05:06 PM


fogo of war, yes; now for the fog of international finance

Posted by: George at December 3, 2004 06:18 PM

Great page redesign, but two comments:

(1) In IE at least, the font size is WAY TOO BIG.

(2) Perhaps due to (1), the title splits "A" (1st line) from "Weblog" (2d line), which looks not so good. If this problem is more than an artifact of my computer, the Prof might want to insert a hard break after the colon.

(I take it for granted that Prof. DeLong is interested in such things.)

Posted by: Anderson at December 3, 2004 07:00 PM

Overall, like the redesign - especially now that the text isn't left-justified and leaving half my screen obviously unused. But the text size is way too big - I'm using Firefox (why does anyone hang on to IE and their near-daily security patch upgrades?), and the type size is probably double, but strangely, the type size in the comments field as I'm typing is normal - must have something to do with my laptop's preferences rather than the blog's.

As for Fog, by God yes, but it's best seen in a dark theater where Glass' soundtrack has the most effect. It wasn't at all the History Channel experience I was expecting. I walked away stunned and terribly saddened. We ended up showing it at one of our Meetups - very powerful stuff.

Posted by: Gregory at December 3, 2004 09:08 PM

(OT: Anderson, one of the handy qualities of Firefox is that you can CTRL-{minus key} or CTRL-{plus key} to quickly decrease or increase text size.)

Posted by: ArC at December 3, 2004 09:09 PM

Quickly, about the reformatting done here, it would be best if the lines separating comments dropped down exactly one line. Instead of separating the commments above the respondants name, drop her down one, it'll be less confusing to figure out who posted what. HTML hell, I know.

Posted by: wunderdog at December 4, 2004 01:31 AM

Jam: I think Fog was shown also at Avalon on upper Connecticut in DC -- the best place in DC for all such films.

Posted by: paulo at December 4, 2004 08:39 AM

Absolutely yes. I finally made time to see it a couple weeks back and wish there was a sequel. Now if Morris could get Kissinger to do the same...

Posted by: anselpixel at December 4, 2004 09:08 AM

Zellerbach Presents showed the film with a discussion afterwards with McNamara, and, I think, Daniel Ellsberg - how did you miss that?

Posted by: flory at December 4, 2004 10:10 AM

Read McNamera's book instead or as a supplement. The film cuts too much out.

Posted by: praktike at December 4, 2004 10:37 AM

In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara analyzes the Kennedy administration's decision making in the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam War and the Johnson administration's d.m. in the Vietnam War. The film is a sequel to social psychologist Irving Janis’ (1971) diagnosis of “groupthink” in analyzing the Bay of Pigs affair.

The film is organized into 11 lessons that correspond to prescriptive advice given by decision analysts (e.g, Keeney & Raiffa) and decision psychologists (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky) such as “Maximize efficiency,” “Get the data,” “Rationality will not save us,” and “Be prepared to re-examine reasoning.”

Aside from being another data point in the small set of analyses of Uncle Sam's decisions, this film serves as a case study of the utility of applied decision science. As Secretary of Defense, McNamara explicitly applied cost-benefit analysis, game theory, etc. He had Rumsfeld's job but John Graham's mindset.

In this film, he evaluates the quality of the decisions he made using this framework. He is critical of his own decision making although he puts most of the blame for the bad outcome on Johnson's unwillingness to cut his losses. So the film illustrates the pitfalls involved in using rational choice theory for policy decisions as well as the way loss aversion can lead a commander in chief to make very bad decisions.

Every American who is funding the war in Iraq should see this film. Bloggers who write about the intersection of economics and public policy ought to see it for intellectual reasons, whether or not they derive utility from being witty and urbane and/or heeding the advice of Alvin T.

Posted by: Deb Frisch at December 4, 2004 12:00 PM

I'm one who doesn't need to see the "Fog of War", or hear any more of Robert Strange McNamara's inchoate ramblings. Having lived through that period and served in Vietnam, I got a mouthful of NcNamara and the whole Johnson Administration.

Basically, this LBJ crew didn't know how to fight a war. You may have heard the saying, "It's not the dog in the fight that counts, but the fight in the dog." Well, the Johnson Administration essentially tried to get by with the "dog in the fight" approach. They definitely didn't listen to the JCS in matters that would have made a difference in the length of the war.

Consider the 1967 JCS recommendation to close North Vietnam seaports to international shipping. Seems like a reasonable thing to do: isolate the battlefield and all that good stuff seen on the History Channel. Given the copious amounts of armaments and fuel that were flowing through Hiaphong Harbor, closing it to shipping would have made a huge diference in the North's ability to wage war in South Vietnam.

The whole purpose of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a MSR (main supply route) from the north, where armaments were obtained from foreign sources (mostly by sea but also by rail from China), to the South where these armaments were used.

To make a long story short, the Johnson Administration wouldn't close North Vietnam seaports in 1967. Richard Nixon did so in 1972 as retaliation for the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive of that year. The seaport closure worked in '72 to a fair degree, but it was far too late to influence the outcome of the war as U.S. ground forces had mostly been removed and the North Vietnamese had captured large portions of the South in their Easter Offensive.

Had Nixon mined North Vietnam's seaports upon coming into office in January '69, it may well have made a difference in the outcome of the war. It's a mystery to me why Nixon didn't do it since the U.S. Navy could have done it so easily as they quickly did three years later once ordered.

Posted by: Lawrence at December 4, 2004 01:07 PM

McNamara remains fascinating, maddening, and he gives a terrific performance in "The Fog of War" - but he's still the same old onion at heart, and he can bring you to tears, no matter how many layers he strips off. Morris can be very acute in his questions, but there are barriers that McNamara will not let down, and his evasions still yawn - they're glimpses of an abyss.
Also check out Charles Taylor's review in "Salon":

Posted by: grishaxxx at December 4, 2004 04:44 PM

The Fog of War is incredibly powerful. Obviously, McNamara's a controversial guy and some of what he says is profoundly unsatisfying, but it's an amazing film, especially for someone like me who has only read about McNamara and his tenure in history books.

Posted by: Julie at December 4, 2004 09:39 PM

Freaky... this just came on netflix today and i watched it not less than 2 hours ago, just gave it 5 stars on netflix and i see a discussion on delong. Im surprised Brad hasn't seen it, Im assuming he hasn't read the book as well? Anyway it was fascinating...almost like more puzzle pieces were put into place... The stories of the meetings with castro and the vietnameese ministers years later was just astounding... knowing what was going through their minds, or how close we had come to nuclear engagement on many occasions. (and the nut jobs pressing for nuclear engagement)

Speaking of the press corps, he did mention the secret to answering tough questions with no accountability. "Just answer the question you wish you had been asked."

On a sad note, this film really made me long for the days when leaders were brilliant people (at least smarter than myself) who i could look up to and trust to make the tough choices and the right choices.

Posted by: clayton at December 4, 2004 11:03 PM

Not having lived through the Vietnam War myself, I found both the "Fog of War" and McNamera's memoires very moving. Talking to my father, however, I realized that many who listened to McNamera during the time itself remember him as cold, arrogant, and deceitful, and that, for them, no amount of retrospective apologia would be palatable.

If Rumsfeld were ever to pull a misty-eyed retrospective, for example, I don't know how open I would be to being moved.

But my favorite part of the film, the firebombing of Japan, didn't get anything near the coverage in McNamera's memoires, and brings up an excellent dilemma that only the movie version could underscore: the victory-at-any-cost logic of the war made all kinds of military sense but inflicted terrible casualties that were perhaps not necessary. The intercut footage of the actual damage gives an incredible weight to McNamera's throwaway line: "If we had lost the war we would perhaps have been found guilty of war crimes."

The most sympathetic argument that McNamera advanced is in both book and movie: he's terrified of nuclear weapons because as Secretary of Defense he's experienced the pressure to use them. You get the sense that he himself barely overcame that pressure (or temptation) and fears that future officials wouldn't stand the test. Here, and perhaps only here, he's on the side of the angels.

Posted by: Jackmormon at December 5, 2004 04:51 PM

I think that is what is amazing about the movie is that I don't see it as MacNamara reminescing, misty-eyed and full of regret. I think it is a man who stands by every decision he ever made, but in the twilight years of his life, he views it from the perspective of the humanity that he influenced. It is a singular look inside a troubled time, and oh so very relevant.

Posted by: Dylan at December 5, 2004 11:17 PM

I finally saw Morris' film about two months ago and was bowled over by it. What is really important about the film is the almost agonizing series of ambiguities. A road to hell...

I found myself sitting at the edge of my chair during the entire film.

The new decor is good, Brad. Clean and clear, if a tad claustrophobic!

Posted by: PW at December 6, 2004 06:16 AM

When I saw this movie I kept thining "This is Rumsfeld in 20 years."

Posted by: sera at December 6, 2004 12:08 PM

Haven't read the book, but I doubt it includes what to me was the strongest part of the movie: the juxtaposition of McNamara's voice-over saying "At such-and-such a time I was secretly telling LBJ that the situation was awful, but he didn't take my advice" with images of McNamara's public appearances during the same period, grinning and pointing at flip-charts, explaining how everything was going just peachily. Of what use is a thoughtful man who not only won't speak up about his doubts, but feels duty-bound to keep actively and energetically lying to people while waiting for his boss to see the light?

This isn't Rumsfeld in 20 years, it's Colin Powell.

Posted by: Eli B at December 6, 2004 03:15 PM

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