Atomic Bomb, Documentaries, Euphemism, Firebombing, Language and Culture, Movies, Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, War
For me, The Fog of War (2003) is absolutely the gift that keeps on giving. I get more fascinated every time I watch this film. There are so many angles to it, so many sub-themes to explore. Lately, I find myself more and more interested in its language. The Fog of War was directed by Errol Morris (of the Thin Blue Line). It consists of a series of interviews with Robert S. McNamara, a man at the center of conflict throughout much of the twentieth-century. Few people could have provided more direct insight into the thinking behind some of the most terrible decisions of that era. By ‘terrible decisions’ I don’t mean poor choices so much as decisions with so much at stake, one can’t help tremble at the thought of them. That many of these decisions were also (arguably) also poor choices in the other sense, choices that cost the lives of countless people is also a big part of this story.
A lesser man might not struggle with such questions at all, resting certain in whatever rationalizations suited him best. But there McNamara is in the Fog of War, right on screen talking about those very decisions, and trembling at the thought of them, right in front of the camera. For a man with blood on his hands (and frankly, enormous quantities of it), McNamara is remarkably candid. Also remarkably thoughtful. Still, there are moments when his honesty fails him. Limits he doesn’t seem quite willing to cross, and possibilities he clearly doesn’t want to explore. In those moments, the hesitation is all over his language.
It begins in some of the first frames of the movie. McNamara tells us that in the course of his life he has been “part of wars.” Fair enough, one might say, but more fairly still he has been more than part of wars. He has been a driving force in wars, perhaps in some cases against his better judgement, but he has certainly been more than part of wars. The wording is mild, perhaps a simple lead-in, but the phrase just doesn’t do justice to the facts that will follow.
The film is punctuated with lessons drawn from McNamara’s experiences. It is Morris that pulls the lessons out of the narrative and presents them as bullet points for our benefit. The first lesson begins with the importance of empathy, not simply as a source of human kindness, but as a method of survival, a means of understanding adversaries. This alone saved the world from total devastation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to McNamara. Morris interrupts him to suggest that McNamara left out a few things in his account of the Russian motivations. Perhaps he didn’t like being interrupted. Perhaps, he wasn’t prepared to acknowledge some of the facts at issue. McNamara is reluctant to get into the issue of genuine Russian grievances, but rallies so to speak, even going so far as to add a few facts in their favor. Still, he wavers at the end, not quite able to come clean on his own role in some of those grievances.
Morris: “Also, we had attempted to invade Cuba.
McNamara: Well, with the Bay of Pigs, that undoubtedly influenced their thinking. I think that’s correct, but more importantly, from a Cuban and a Russian point of view, they knew, what in a sense I really didn’t know. We had attempted to assassinate Castro under Eisenhower and under Kennedy, and later under Johnson, and in addition to that, major voices in the U.S. were calling for invasion.
Every time I watch this film, I wonder what that means. In what sense is it that McNamara didn’t know that the U.S. had tried to assassinate Castro? Is this a fatal failure moral courage? Is McNamara simply unable to admit what he knew? Or is this a key to understanding the (dis-)organization of American diplomacy? Is it possible that he was the left hand, only dimly aware of what the right one was up to? Don’t know, but seriously, that’s a Hell of a hedge coming through an otherwise brilliant narrative.
McNamara served in the U.S. Air Forces during World War II, serving under General Curtis LeMay. He provided statistical analysis of U.S. bombing missions. I know paperwork, right? But sometimes the pen really is mightier than the sword, or even the canon. Clearly, McNamara’s reports were not simply filed…
McNamara: I was on the island of Guam, in his command, in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo. Men, Women, and children.
Morris: Were you aware this was going to happen?
McNamara: Well, I was…, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.
I analyzed bombing operations and how to make them more efficient, i.e. not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but more efficient in the sense of weakening the adversary. I wrote one report analyzing the efficiency of the B-29 operations. The B-29 could get above the fighter aircraft, and above the air defense, so the loss rate would be much less. The problem was the accuracy was also much less. Now I don’t want to suggest that it was my report that led to, I’ll call it the firebombing. It isn’t that I’m trying to absolve myself of blame for the firebombing. I don’t want to suggest that it was I that put in LeMay’s mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed, but anyway that’s what he did. He took the B-29s down to 5,000 feet, and he decided to bomb with firebombs.
The first phrasing of interest here is the recommendation. This is a double hedge. McNamara doesn’t take personal responsibility in this statement. He submerges himself in a larger “mechanism,” but that isn’t enough, because that mechanism only recommends the firebombing “in a sense.” McNamara thus starts his answer to Morris two full shields removed from personal responsibility for the firebombings. He then goes onto assure us that the measure of efficiency he used was not simply the number of people killed but the effectiveness of the bombing in weakening the enemy. It is an interesting distinction, albeit one perhaps lost at the moment when the fires reached their victims. That McNamara struggles with this is clear enough throughout this and many other segments of the film. I don’t mean to suggest he is insensitive to the topic. Rather, his struggle seems to suggest the opposite. McNamara hasn’t quite explained his own role adequately to himself, and the result is the final mess of hedging about the question of personal responsibility. He denies it, but he also denies that he denies it. It’s easy enough to point to LeMay, and with good reason; it was LeMay’s decision. Still, I can’t help thinking that answer wasn’t even sufficient for McNamara.
Morris: The choice of incendiary bombs, where did that come from?
McNamara: I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is in order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way. LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand, burning to death of a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none, and then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?
Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve. I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S. Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history; kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race, prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are, I’ll call it the rules of war. Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night. LeMay said, if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if your lose and not immoral if you win?
This one of the most fascinating monologues I have yet seen in a film. McNamara seems determined to ensure we understand the full gravity of the situation, almost urging the case against himself and others. He wants us to know this was a terrible decision, perhaps even a crime. And yet, he builds a kind of defense into the narrative. It begins with his refusal to answer the question. He had been asked who was responsible for the decision to use incendiary bombs, thus generating more civilian deaths than conventional ordinance might have. Whatever else, McNamara’s speech here gives us, it does not give us a direct answer to that question.
The narrative also serves to shape questions about McNamara’s own role in the affair in terms of his relationship to his commander. It is LeMay’s thoughts on the subject which control McNamara’s story-line. His own decisions are thus framed in terms of what LeMay might have said in response to any argument against the decision to firebomb the Japanese cities. If McNamara himself might have objected, this story suggests, his concerns would have been simply overruled.
Lastly, McNamara deflects the moral questions onto humanity itself. Nevermind who was responsible for this particular decision. The real question is one that falls to humanity itself. How might humanity have handled such an issue? McNamara seems to suggest, the answer would take the form of a rule of war. The specific feasibility of such rules at that time (or any other) is not so clear, but seems to be how he wants to address the issue. And in the end, this means NOT addressing the issue of just who is responsible for burning all those women and children up during World War II. McNamara wants us to understand it’s a serious issue, but he is at great pains to avoid dealing with it too directly.
This may seem like a side-issue, but I can’t help thinking it points to a Hell of a drama in its own right. McNamara’s thoughts on his own family and the impact of his service as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy contain some interesting hedges of their own.
That’s the way it (his role as Secretary of State) began. You know, there was a traumatic period. My wife probably got ulcers from it, may have even ultimately have died from the stress. My son got ulcers; it was a very traumatic, but they were some of the best years of our lives, and all the members of my family benefited from it. It was terrific.
I can’t help wondering how McNamara could say that his service benefited all members of his family while telling us the job may well have killed his wife. It seems cruel to me, even to point this out, and yet, it seems an important fact. Among the many who suffered through this man’s career, one may well count members of his own family. No doubt, this too has its reasons, reasons he doesn’t owe us, but as much as he gives is damned disturbing. And I wonder if that sort of story isn’t a bit more common than one might suspect.
Regarding the build-up of the Vietnam War…
There was a coup in South Vietnam. Diem was overthrown, and he and his brother were killed. I was present with the President when together we received information of that coup. I have never seem him more upset. He totally blanched. President Kennedy and I had tremendous problems with Diem, but My God! He was the authority, he was the head of state, and he was overthrown by a military coup, and Kennedy knew, and I knew, that to some degree the U.S. Government was responsible for that.
Here again, one seems to see McNamara posing as the left hand struggling to understand what the right hand was doing. Government is complex, sure, but I can’t help wondering; if I were in a more polemic mood, might I start a criticism of this war by asking just how in the Hell the CIA could give it’s blessings to a coup the President and his Secretary of Defence didn’t support?
Speaking of Vietnam, there is a fascinating moment covering the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Twice in August of 1964, the Destroyer USS Maddox reported attacks from North Vietnamese forces. These attacks have long been disputed, but nevertheless, they provided the rational for a resolution authorizing use of greater force by Lyndon Johnson. McNamara provides his own take on the details. One of the more interesting gems here is an audio-taped recording of a man on the Maddox reporting the attacks. Asked if he is sure that a torpedo had been fired at the ship, he replies in the affirmative; “No doubt about that, …I think.”
“What I’m doing is thinking it through with hindsight, but you don’t have hindsight available at the time. I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I’ve made errors.”
This line comes toward the end of the film as McNamara is beginning to summarize the whole thing. One might question whether or not ‘errors’ would be the most appropriate word to use for the sense of moral transgression that haunts this film. Perhaps, this may seem unfair. McNamara and those he served with had responsibilities some of us will thankfully never know. Had he done too little, he might well have faced similarly questions about the loss of American lives due to failure of nerve. So, does this render the whole issue a kind of practical calculation, a simple cost-benefit analysis? McNamara seems to have been well trained in such accounting. This might well be his honest sense of the issues. Sill, one has to wonder at the use of ‘error’ to describe the moral significance of lives lost wasted.
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 is claimed that that was a toxic chemical, and it killed many individuals, soldiers and civilians 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.
What is most striking about this passage is the distance between McNamara and a decision for which he was clearly responsible. McNamara does acknowledge this happened on his watch. And yet he discusses the issue for the most part as though the responsibility must fall on the shoulders of someone else. Again, McNamara seems to look to the laws for answers to these questions, but that too seems to be a bit of a dodge. Does he really need a law to tell him not to poison people?
…also noteworthy here would be the sense that something is odd about the claim that a chemical that strips leaves from plants might be harmful humans. McNamara doesn’t quite acknowledge that it is harmful. He is content to tell us that “it is claimed…”
Near the end of the film, McNamara relates the story of a protester. His account here is fascinating in many ways. What interests me about it at present is the way he frames the moral questions again in terms of humanity itself. This was a protester who died trying to communicate something to McNamara himself, but McNamara saw the significance of his death in the language of the man’s wife, as a question for all of humanity. Perhaps such questions are well asked of all of humanity, and yet I can’t help thinking that a question asked of all of humanity isn’t really asked of any particular person.
…or perhaps, more to the point, a person weary of answering such questions in his own life, weary of his own answers and the consequences of the answers he has given, might well prefer to have humanity itself grapple with those questions.
Anyway, we’ll leave it with this last quote.
Norman Morrison was a Quaker. He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing. He came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline. Burned himself to death below my office. He held a child in his arms, his daughter. Passersby shouted, “Save the child!” He threw the child out of his arms, and the child lived, and is alive today. His wife issued a very moving statement, uh; ‘Human beings must stop killing other human beings.’ And that’s a belief that I shared. I shared it then and I believe it even more strongly today. How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.