Review: The Fog of War

The Two Pepper Shakers

Errol Morris has compared and contrasted Robert McNamara with Donald Rumsfeld in many colorful ways. In terms of the relationship of “The Fog of War” to “The Unknown Known”, he calls them the salt and pepper shakers, but he also offers a more poignant image of the men themselves:

Morris’s wife and collaborator, Julia Sheehan, said that McNamara was “The Flying Dutchman” wandering the earth looking for redemption, while Rumsfeld is the Cheshire cat.

“All we’re left with at the very end is this infernal grin,” Morris said.1

It’s absolutely the case that Unknown Known is a haunting portrait of someone with immense power behaving, thinking, and speaking in a perpetual and effortless stream of bad faith. Being a big fan of both movies, it was easy for me to take the distinction Morris draws between these individuals for granted, but then I read an old review of The Fog of War by Alexander Cockburn for Counterpunch:

[…] 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.2

I found I had to review my memory of The Fog of War. Anyone who has seen these movies is intimately familiar with the mannerisms of both men, and while Rumsfeld’s character is easily indicted by his lascivious predatory grin, I found I was at a loss for a contrasting feature of McNamara’s–an expression that conveyed remorse or genuine moral doubt. Obviously, the whole premise of Fog of War is the uncertainty of war, but McNamara’s uncertainty is narrowly defined; he’s primarily concerned with the unreliability of the data on hand. What never falls into doubt is whether he executed his job in the utmost good faith, in all respects, with the greatest possible command of the information that was available to him.

On review, the constant intoning and admonishing about the haziness of war began to feel slack. Yeah, war is like a fog. Uncertain, difficult to navigate, etc. So what? So are a lot of things. Raising a kid is foggy, but do the parents of bad children point hopelessly to the “Fog of Child Raising”? No, they don’t. They nearly all express extreme doubt, guilt, and shame. Does McNamara express doubt? In the prosaic sense, yes, but guilt and shame are absent without the assistance of the viewer’s imagination.

McNamara states at one point in the film, “Never answer the question that is asked of you; answer the one you wish had been asked of you.” This isn’t as baroque or grimly amusing as the evasions of Donald Rumsfeld, but is it any less duplicitous? Here he is on Agent Orange (a so-called “defoliant” that will sear your flesh to the bone and give you cancer):

What is morally appropriate in a wartime environment? Let me give you an illustration: While I was secretary, we used what’s called Agent Orange in Vietnam, a chemical that strips leaves off of trees. After the war, it was claimed that it was a toxic chemical that killed many individuals; soldiers and civilians that were exposed to it. Were those who issued the approval to use Agent Orange criminals? Were they committing a crime against humanity? Let’s look at the law. Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not. We don’t have clear definitions of that kind. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange. I don’t remember it, but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was Secretary.3

These are not the words of someone preoccupied with ethics or morality, or really anything like introspective thought. In what sense is he the contrasting good faith example to Rumsfeld? When it comes to the technocrats that administrate modern warfare, you simply have varying styles of Donald Rumsfeld. The same breed of maniacal, unthinking, Nazi bureaucrat. Some of them with more dignified mannerisms, who dissemble more elegantly.

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?

[…] The eyes don’t tell the story.2

1 Maureen Dowd, “A Mad Tea Party”, The New York Times
2 Alexander Cockburn, “Robert McNamara 10, Errol Morris 0”,
3 Errol Morris, “The Fog of War”