The Collaboration of Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris on Fog of War

“I can’t help but admire Robert McNamara,” Errol Morris said recently. “Whether it’s futile, misguided, self-serving, here is a man who devoted himself to trying to mitigate or prevent war, a man who was involved in creating the limited test ban treaty, a man who has advocated the creation of an international court to adjudicate war crimes. I really admire him.”

Fortunately, not a bit of that is in Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Morris’s film about the man who was secretary of defense from 1961 through 1968 for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. McNamara diligently executed the Vietnam war for both of them, though he seems to have developed doubts about it as time went by. When he became too vocal in private meetings about his reservations, Johnson banished him in the presidency of the World Bank.

Postmodern documentary

The film is gorgeous and the editing usually seamless. Images slide in and out and though you can tell the difference in what is staged and what isn’t, it makes no difference because the elements are all there as part of Morris’s construct. No documentary filmmaker is more adept than Morris at dissolving the line between totally fabricated and reconstructed. He is the perfect post-modern filmmaker; by comparison, he makes Frederic Wiseman look didactic.

Few filmmakers are as skilled as Morris at visualizing other people’s abstractions and ideas, which is why he has been so successful doing major commercials for Apple, Coors, Adidas, 7-Eleven and other such companies. He is brilliant at illustrating possibility. He managed to make a fascinating film out of Stephen Hawking’s book on quantum theory and relativity, A Brief History of Time (1992). His film about the wrongful murder conviction of Randall Adams in Texas, Thin Blue Line, dramatizes every theory about how that murder happened but the one that in all likelihood did happen.

Fog of War is organized into chapters built around pithy things McNamara says–“Believing and seeing are both often wrong.” “Rationality will not save us.” “Empathize with your enemy.” “In order to do good you have to be willing to do evil.”–but it’s the lugubrious and insistent score by Philip Glass that glues the whole thing together. It is not unlike the lugubrious and insistent score Glass did for Thin Blue Line. Any time there’s any doubt about how you might regard an image–light or heavy? peripheral or central?–Glass’s music is there to lead you by the ear.

Sometimes McNamara is dead center in the frame; sometimes the frame is tilted right or left and he’s moved to the side of the frame. Verticals on the backdrop accentuate the skews. It’s a matter of visual variety; there’s no connection with substance when the tilts happen. Sometimes bombs fall; sometimes animated names of cities and numbers of dead fall. There’s no difference in the film as perhaps there is no difference from the high altitude cockpits and bombardiers’ scopes, and surely none at all from the distant desks and plotting boards of the theorists putting it all into motion. That’s what McNamara was in WWII , a theorist who he helped plan the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities, including Tokyo, where 100,000 civilians were burned to death.

Confusion and accountability

The film’s title comes from McNamara’s assertion that the human mind cannot at once contain all the variables in war, that understanding is possible only later, if ever. That post-modern theory of warfare is not merely an insight achieved. It is also, and more importantly, an excuse given. If you believe in the fog of war theory, then anyone has a perfect excuse after the fog clears. “Oh, I did that when the fog was heavy.” Some–not McNamara–argue that the people we empower to kill virtually at will should be held to a higher standard of clarity than that: if you can’t see through the fog, don’t kill anybody, at least not until the light gets better and you have some idea what you’re really doing.

In the film, McNamara never seems to consider his own accountability for anything. Morris asks him who is responsible for war and without apparent hesitation McNamara says “The president.” It seems never to have occurred to him that he could have stepped up to a microphone and said, “This war is wrong and those people are dying and getting maimed for nothing,” though he apparently knew and believed both statements to be true. Morris gently nudges him there, but there he will not go. How can he?

McNamara admits to errors. Everyone, he says, commits errors in war. That is part of the nature of war. What he never talks about is the moral core of war. He talks about the efficiency of this or that (firebombing Japan, say) and about the legal culpability of losers. He talks about the potential price of error in the nuclear age (“We were that close,” he says–holding thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart–to nuclear war with Russia over the Cuban missile crisis).

But he says nothing about good or evil, having done (as opposed to having been) right or wrong. There’s a world of difference in doing right or wrong and being right or wrong. The latter is determined only by the final score; the former is determined by values with which the final score may have nothing at all to do. McNamara, even now, approaching the end, is either deaf and blind to the difference or sees no use to himself in considering them.

Justifying a life

He seems particularly proud of having been at Ford Motor Company when the seatbelt was developed, of his management team having scored higher or better or more appropriately on Ford’s aptitude tests than anybody else’s management team, and of having been the first president of Ford who was not a member of the founder’s family. He also talks a lot about how well he did at grade school and in college. Morris shot 20 hours of McNamara talking and the entire film is 97 minutes long. McNamara talks through most, but by no means all of it. We don’t know what questions Morris asked, if any, to get him talking about those matters and what level of detail he indicated he wanted. The fact that McNamara spends a lot of time in the film talking about his successes at Ford and in school is at least as much a trope of Morris as a brag by McNamara.

Much of what McNamara says here is in his 1995 book In Retrospect. When that was published, critics wondered, “Why now?” Was he trying to set his life in order? Justify himself to himself? He was never the kind of career-rewriting fabricator Kissinger was and is. Not that he didn’t care what people thought, but the people whose thoughts he cared about weren’t the general public.

Robert McNamara is perhaps Earl Morris’s perfect subject. There is no truth in McNamara, only the purported recollection and recomposition of facts. McNamara, in a phrase that was a cliche in New York prisons a few years back, “is what he is.” We come away from the film with as many questions as before it began, perhaps more. What does he really reveal of himself? How much can we know when all we know is what we see, and all we see here is an old man staring into a camera and dramatizations of the old man’s words or brilliant combinations of archival footage and animations by Error Morris?

We’ll never know why he chose to expose himself to Errol Morris or what part of himself he exposed and what part he hid. We have what we have; the film is what it is. You know character, said Aristotle in “Poetics,” by the choices a person makes. This film is an old man talking about another time, a time when he was hugely powerful and was responsible for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths.

It may well be that McNamara is a man of less guile than recent experience has gotten us to expect of public servants. He may really think that what he did, how he did it, and his recounting now of what he wants to remember as having happened are all one needs to know to understand these matters. Which is, in itself, perhaps one of the real reasons the Vietnam War happened, why it went on so long, why it was so vicious, and why we have now in the White House and Pentagon a president and secretary of defense who seem, in all regards, to have learned nothing from it.

It doesn’t take any brains or guts to admit now that the US fucked up big in Vietnam. A modern-day politician who said we were right to go in there, that we killed 3.5 million Vietnamese for good reason, that we got those 58,000Americans killed for good reason, and that we maimed and mutilated millions of others for good reason, would be hooted off the stage. Perhaps the only bearable posture is the one McNamara assumes: that we were wrong for the right reasons. He and nobody in the Kennedy or Johnson administrations knew that China and Vietnam were traditional enemies in a way that transcended the Red Menace, you see, and there was all that fog of war.

Made things and collaborators

Documentaries aren’t facts; they’re not even made of facts. They’re made of film and tape that may or may not be of or about things that really happened. “I think in all of my films,” Morris told an interviewer, “there are these questions of how we know what we know and our illusions of certainty, when in fact, we possess no such certainty, at all. There are certainly moments in all my films that deal with that very question, even in The Fog of War, McNamara asks the question, ‘Are we omniscient?’ And you hear this exchange of the commanders in the Gulf of Tonkin, where they talk about, ‘Are you certain these events occurred?’ and he concludes, “‘Of course, I’m certain. I think.'”

Documentaries are made things, not found things. Every documentary has an author. Some have more than one author. Usually, the authors are behind the cameras and editing machines, mostly invisible.

But sometimes–as in The Fog of War–one is behind the camera and one is in front of it and the two work as a team. Errol Morris shot and edited the film, but he had a collaborator–Robert Strange McNamara– whose name could have gone on the director’s line with his and perhaps should have. Because McNamara is obviously directing himself and acting his own lines through all of this. He is playing a character with his body and name, but a character in a film it is nonetheless. There are shots of him in his car that are posed. Shots of him walking that are posed. Shots of him looking into the camera and talking directly to it that are posed. Shots of him looking into the camera in silence, hardly blinking, that if not posed are surely aware of what it will look like from our side of the lens.

Bad teeth

During those closeups I kept thinking, “What lousy teeth he has. Why does a guy with so much money have such lousy teeth? What’s he trying to prove?” In the earlier photographs, they’re just crooked. By the time of the interview (two years ago, when McNamara was 85), the teeth in front are crooked and several of the teeth on the side have been replaced by metal substitutes or caps, none of which seem aimed in quite the right direction. Maybe he just never had time to get his teeth fixed right once he got rich in his years at Ford.

When he was a kid, there wasn’t money for teeth. There doesn’t seem to have been much money for anything. McNamara won a scholarship to Stanford but the family didn’t have enough money to make up the difference so he went to Berkeley instead. He talks warmly of having taken there courses in philosophy and logic. It’s the latter that seems to have made the greater impression on him, though Morris several times imagizes both with closeups of words on a page and flowing logical symbols.

During the Vietnam War years, when I was one of the many demonstrating against McNamara whenever I got a chance, including once on the porch under his Pentagon office window in October 1967, I wondered if he was really the cold, clinical bastard he seemed to be on tv or if it was merely the effect of the slicked back from the forehead way he did his hair and the no-nonsense wire-rim glasses that had none of cool of the wire-rims worn by John Lennon. After listening to him talk in so warmly in The Fog of War about his course in logic I think he probably was exactly what he seemed to be.

It’s good to remember that logic has no content; there is no good or bad in logic, no better or worse, no value of any kind. It is entirely a matter of process. And that’s what McNamara comes back to again and again: process. He was, and remains, a manager.

He became, it is said, one of the few in the Johnson administration who turned against the war, and said so. Never publicly, but in cabinet meetings and in private meetings with JFK and LBJ. Fog of War has several scenes using a trope Morris perfected in Thin Blue Line: the turning reels of a tape recorder, the clicking dial of the recorder’s counter, unseen voices talking. Implied is a real thing, back in some real time. For those objective evaluations, Johnson banished Robert Strange McNamara. He gave McNamara the National Medal of Freedom in a ceremony I remember well: McNamara stood at the lectern and said he was incapable of speaking, that his remarks would have to wait for another time.

Once I thought he meant that he was thinking that it was absurd to have received a medal for all that squandering of human life and national treasure. How could a medal and however much pomp wash away the blood, and how could one say that in a few words at a lectern in the White House with the president at his side? Later, when there was time and a more suitable forum, he’d say what must be said. But in The Fog of War he seems to be saying that he was silent that day simply because he was choked up with emotion at the honor. And by saying all this in The Fog of War we understand that there has finally come a time when it is appropriate to say these things.

If he means that, then what a poor dumb bastard he finally is. If not, what a mendacious, manipulative sonofabitch he’s been all along. We’ll never know which it is. Maybe not even Robert S. McNamara knows which it is. All we have is McNamara’s book and this film made by Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris. Just because you read something in a book or see and hear something in a documentary doesn’t mean it’s true. It means only that you read it in a book or saw and heard it in a documentary.

The excellence of uncertainty

We cannot know the past; we can only think about it. We cannot know another person’s heart; we can only make assumptions about it. Our most profound and useful act of thinking is asking questions, not delivering answers.

And therein lies the brilliance of this film. Errol Morris had his own personal belief about Robert S. McNamara, but the film, as I said before, imposes none of that. The film lets McNamara present himself, and it offers images and sounds that may or may not reflect what McNamara or Morris is really thinking. The lugubrious Philip Glass musical track may be didactic, and then again it may be leadenly ironic, thick and heavy because only thick and heavy goes with this particular stew.

Errol Morris provides no answers to anything in Fog of War. Instead, he gives us images and sounds that allow us to formulate difficult questions that we can’t possibly answer either. That incapacity of resolution does not mean we are not obliged to wrestle with them. The appearance of fog does not free any of us of the obligation of trying to see. There is not much more we could ask of a documentary or any other kind of film.

BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at:


Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo