Robert McNamara 10, Errol Morris 0
My dear friend and late Nation colleague Andrew Kopkind liked to tell how, skiing in Aspen at the height of the Vietnam War, he came round a bend and saw another skier, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, alone near the edge of a precipice. This was during the period of Rolling Thunder, which ultimately saw three times as many bombs dropped on Vietnam as the Allies dropped on Europe in the Second World War. “I could have reached out with my ski pole,” Andy would say wistfully, “and pushed him over.”
Alas, Andy shirked this chance to get into the history books and McNamara survived the 1960s, when he contributed more than most to the slaughter of 3.4 million Vietnamese (his own estimate). He went on to run the World Bank, where he presided over the impoverishment, eviction from their lands and death of many millions more round the world.
And now here he is, the star of Errol Morris’s much-praised, in my view wildly over-praised, documentary The Fog of War, talking comfortably about the millions of people he’s helped to kill. It reminded me of films of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and then head of war production. Speer loved to admit to an overall guilt. But when he was pressed on specific nastiness, like working Jews or Russians to death in arms factories, he would insist, eyes ablaze with forthrightness, that he knew nothing of such infamies.
It’s good to have a new generation reminded of history’s broad outlines, like the firebombing of Japanese cities and Vietnam, but even here McNamara’s recollection–surprising to many–of his role in advising Curtis LeMay to order his bombers to fly at lower altitude, the more effectively to incinerate Japanese cities, goes unexamined.
Did the young McNamara, admittedly a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, really play such a role? I asked my associate, Rohit Goel, to check, and he contacted Michael Sherry, Professor of History at Northwestern University, author of The Rise of American Air Power. Here’s what Sherry e-mailed back:
“I did extensive research in the late 1970s and 1980s on the American bombing of Japan, and especially on LeMay’s decision to fly in at lower altitudes. I do not recall that McNamara’s name ever popped up in those records, and since McNamara’s was a famous name by then, I wouldn’t have ignored it. Nor was McNamara mentioned in the several hours of interviewing I did with LeMay. While not denigrating his [i.e. McNamara’s]wartime record, I suspect there is some latter-day expansion of the importance of his wartime role—that not uncommon tendency of old soldiers to inflate the past. In this case, there may also be a familiar theme at work that surfaced, sometimes in ugly conflict, in McNamara’s tenure as defense secretary—the superiority of civilian expertise over military wisdom; perhaps McNamara is figuratively writing that theme back into his story of World War II… In any event,doubt LeMay saw McNamara as a major figure in his decision-making, and LeMay’s resort to firebombing was the product of several factors (including pressure from Washington, and simply the apparent failure of other efforts to do much), not simply of the technical advice he received.”
The documentary’s gimmickry-cuts to black, Morris shouting his questions away from the mike, McNamara off-center in the frame, montage of typewriter-ribbon wheels, skulls dropping in slow motion down a stairwell, captions offering very banal “lessons”-gives us a clue.
Morris didn’t have much to throw at McNamara. He didn’t do enough homework, and it’s no substitute to say he’s evolved a technique whereby we can look into McNamara’s eyes. We can look into the eyes of anyone on remote camera on the Koppel Show. So what?
Time and again, McNamara gets away with it, cowering in the shadow of baroque monsters like Curtis LeMay or LBJ, choking up about his choice of Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington, sniffling at the memory of Johnson giving him the Medal of Freedom, spouting nonsense about how Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, muffling himself in the ever-useful camouflage of the “fog of war.”
Now, the “fog of war” is a tag usually attributed to von Clausewitz, though the great German philosopher and theorist of war never actually used the phrase. Eugenia Kiesling argued a couple of years ago in Military Review that the idea of fog– unreliable information–wasn’t a central preoccupation of Clausewitz. “Eliminating fog”, Kiesling wrote, gives us a clearer and more useful understanding of Clausewitz’s friction. It restores uncertainty and the intangible stresses of military command to their rightful centrality in ‘On War’. It allows us to replace the simplistic message that war intelligence is important with the reminder that Clausewitz constantly emphasizes moral forces in war.”
As presented by McNamara, through Morris, “the fog of war” usefully deflects attention from clear and unpleasant facts entirely unobscured by fog. McNamara can talk–I’ll come to the Gulf of Tonkin incident shortly–about confusions, fog, about what actually happened on August 2 or 4, 1964, thus detouring unfogged daylight, of which there was plenty, about the moral failures of US commanders including McNamara, waging war on the Vietnamese.
Roberta Wohlstetter was a pioneer in this fogging technique back in the 1950s with her heavily subsidized Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, which deployed the idea of distracting “noise” as the phenomenon that prevented US commanders, ultimately Roosevelt, from comprehending the information that the Japasnese were about to launch a surprise attack. Wohlstetterian “noise” thus obscured the fact that FDR wanted a Japanese provocation, knew the attack was coming, though not probable not its scale and destructiveness.
When McNamara looks back down memory lane there are no real shadows, just the sunlight of moral self-satisfaction: “I don’t fault Truman for dropping the bomb”; “I never saw Kennedy more shocked” (after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem); “never would I have authorized an illegal action” (after the Tonkin Gulf fakery); “I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I’m very sorry I made errors” (his life).
Slabs of instructive history are missing from Morris’s film. McNamara rode into the Pentagon on one of the biggest of big lies, the bogus “missile gap” touted by Kennedy in his 1960 campaign against Nixon. It was all nonsense. As Defense Secretary McNamara ordered the production of 1,000 Minuteman strategic nukes, this at a time when he was looking at US intelligence reports showing that the Soviets had one silo with one untested missile.
To Morris now he offers homilies about the menace of nuclear Armageddon. It’s cost-free to say to say such things, grazing peacefully on the tranquil mountain pastures of his 87 years.
Why did Morris not try to extort from McNamarta, in those twenty-three hoursd of interviews, some reflections on how people in their forties, on active service in the belly of the beast, should behave. Would McNamara encourage today’s weapons designers in Los Alamos to mutiny, to resign? Were the atom spies in Los Alamos in the 1940s right to try to level nuclear terror to some sort of balance? How does McNamara regard the Berrigans and their comrades who served or are serving decades in prison for physically attacking nuclear missiles, beating the decks of the Sea Wolf nuclear submarine with their hammers.
Even when McNamara’s record shows to his credit, no useful point is made. Ralph Nader tells me (and wrote it in Unsafe at Any Speed) that it’s true that when he was head of the Ford Division of the Ford motor Company in the mid-1950s, McNamara did push for safety options–seat belts and padded instrument panels. Ford dealer brochures for the ’56 models featured photos of how Ford and GM models fared in actual crashes, to GM’s disadvantage.
But Morris could have put to McNamara what happened next. As Nader describes it, in December, 1955, a top GM executive called Ford’s vice president for sales and said Ford’s safety campaign had to stop. These Ford executives, many of them formerly from GM, had a saying, Chevy could drop its price $25 to bankrupt Chrysler, $50 to bankrupt Ford. Ford ran up the white flag. The safety sales campaign stopped. McNamara took a long vacation in Florida, his career in Detroit in the balance, and came back a team player. Safety went through the windscreen and lay in a coma for years.
None of this bloody corporate handiwork shows up in the documentary, which opts for that showy footage of skulls being dropped down stair wells as part of safety-impact studies. McNamara invokes the Ford Falcon–you can still see some of them bumbling around in the South–as his effort to push small cheap cars, and of course this claim goes unexamined too. The US car companies put out small cars in the late fifties mostly to instruct US consumers that small cars weren’t worth buying (except for the immortal Slant 6 Plymouth Valiant, rolled out in 1960 by Chrysler, run by engineers), as opposed to the larger vehicles which was what the companies were interested in making money off. The Japanese and Germans came in with well-made small cars and, helped by Nader’s attack on the Corvair (which was actually a pretty good car) captured that market, just as they wiped out the UK’s poorly managed MG and Triumph in the Forties.
The eyes don’t tell the story. McNamara is self-serving and disingenuous. Reminiscing about his acceptance of Kennedy’s invitation to come from Ford in Detroit to Camelot, McNamara claims to Morris that he insisted he would not be part of Georgetown’s pesky social round. Nonsense. He took to it like a parvenu to ermine, as more than one Washington hostess could glowingly recall.
“It’s beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend all the variables,” the systems analyst proclaims to Morris, which would have afforded a better-informed filmmaker a chance to ask this cold engine of statistical calculation for his take on the prime business of the Pentagon, the allocation of pork.
Why did Defense Secretary McNamara overrule all expert review and procurement recommendations and insist that General Dynamics rather than Boeing make the disastrous F-111, at that time one of the largest procurement contracts uin the Pentagon’s history? Could it be that Henry Crown of Chicago was calling in some chits for his role in fixing the 1960 JFK vote in Cook County, Illinois? Crown, of Chicago Sand and Gravel, had $300 million of the mob’s money in GD debentures, and after the disaster of the Convair, GD needed the F-111 to avoid going belly-up, taking the mob’s $300 million with it. McNamara misled Congressional investigators about this for years afterward.
The Gulf of Tonkin “attack” prompted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, whereby Congress gave LBJ legal authority to prosecute and escalate the war in Vietnam. McNamara does some fancy footwork here, stating that there wasn’t any attack by North Vietnamese PT boats on the US destroyer Maddox on August 4, but that there had been such an attack on August 2. It shouldn’t have been beyond Morris’s powers to pull up a well-reported piece by Robert Scheer, published in the Los Angeles Times in April, 1985, establishing not only that the Maddox was attacked neither on August 2 nor 4 but that, beginning on the night of July 30, South Vietnamese navy personnel, US-trained and -equipped, “had begun conducting secret raids on targets in North Vietnam.” As Scheer said, the North Vietnamese PT boats that approached the Maddox on August 2 were probably responding to that assault.
The Six-Day War? Just before this ‘67 war the Israelis were ready to attack and knew they were going to win but couldn’t get a clear go-ahead from the Johnson Administration. As the BBC documentary The 50 Years War narrates, Meir Amit, head of Israel’s Mossad, flew to Washington. The crucial OK came from McNamara, thus launching Israel’s long-planned, aggressive war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which led to present disasters. And no, Morris didn’t quiz McNamara on Israel’s deliberate attack on the US ship Liberty during that war (with thirty-four US sailors dead and 174 wounded), or on the cover-up that McNamara supervised.
We have so many sponsors of mass murder hanging around, it would be nice to see one of them, once in a while, take a real pasting. But no, they live on into happy old age, vivid in their worries about the human condition, writing in The New York Review of Books, passing on no honest records about the evil it really takes to run an empire. So suddenly people are shocked about a relative piker like George W. Bush and start talking about Hitler. If only they knew. It’s not that hard to find out.
As displayed by Morris, McNamara never offers any reflection on the social system that produced and promoted him, a perfectly nice, well-spoken war criminal. As his inflation of his role in the foe-bombing of Japan shows, he can go so far as to falsely though complacently indict himself , while still shirking bigger , more terrifying and certainly more useful reflections on the system that blessed him and mercilessly killed millions upon millions under FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon. I don’t think Morris laid a glove on McNamara, who should be feeling well pleased. Like Speer, he got away with it yet again.
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