Robert McNamara and Errol Morris

“It is beyond the human mind to comprehend all the variables”, says Robert McNamara of the complicated business of waging war. The 85 year-old former US Secretary of Defense is talking to director Errol Morris about his behind-the-scenes involvement in some of the 20th century’s most significant events: World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam. Do his reflections make good sense, pointing to the need for political leaders to be wary of the consequences of their decisions? Or is he hiding from the truth about his past, a war criminal in the business of fabricating an apologia for his actions?

In The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003), McNamara expounds at length about his Zelig-like life: his recall, from the age of two, of the celebrations in the street at the end of World War I; his university years at Berkeley; the beginnings of an academic career at Harvard; his time in the air force in the Statistical Control Office under General Curtis LeMay during World War II; his work as the director of the Ford Motor Company. He also looks back on his time as an advisor to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; the effect of his political career on his family; and his departure from government after privately expressing dissent to LBJ about US involvement in Vietnam. His subsequent career, as president of the World Bank (1968-1981), is mentioned only in passing.

Taking its lead from McNamara’s 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Morris has arranged his film around 11 lessons, adding a prologue and an epilogue. He also deploys a veritable battery of archival material both to support McNamara’s reflections and to comment upon them.

Much of the negative reaction to the film has come from those concerned by what they perceive to be a lack of intervention on Morris’ part, charging him with allowing McNamara a platform from which to speak, relatively unchallenged. For his part, Morris has insisted in interviews on his ambivalence about his subject, but he shouldn’t have had to. Even aside from some of the extraordinarily revealing confessions he’s been able to extract from the man, it’s clear in the film.

The prologue provides a strong indication of what’s to come. It begins with old black-and-white off-cuts from a press conference in which McNamara is presenting himself as a man eager to be accommodating, long before the cameras are supposed to be rolling. “Do you want it lowered?” he asks about a map he’s about to use. “Let me ask the TV first: are you ready?” He’s being helpful, but it’s also a performance designed to establish the terms of the relationship between a public official and his interrogators. He’s got the first shot in, and nobody’s even noticed.

It’s not by chance, then, that the next sequence is some generic footage set aboard a battleship. The crew on board are readying for combat, Morris drawing an analogy between them and what McNamara is doing. And when the consummate politician then tries to use the same trick on Morris – asking him if the voice levels are right – Morris is ready for him, aggressively shouting back that they are.

When McNamara later talks about Vietnam, Morris inserts images of dominoes falling across a map of South-East Asia, in reference to the so-called “domino theory”, now discredited, which had countries falling one after another, in sequence, to the perceived Communist monolith. But then, when McNamara subsequently refers to the ways in which mind-sets themselves launch chains of events, Morris repeats the same images by way of directing attention to McNamara’s – and at least three US administrations’ – own mind-sets at the time. So much for a lack of intervention. And so much for the way that, according to J. Hoberman in a remarkably ill-informed reading of the film in the April 2004 issue of Sight and Sound, “Morris’ feelings are nowhere apparent” in the film, and for the way he “allows McNamara to put his own spin on the Vietnam War” (p. 21).

The Fog of War is only the second time that Morris has dealt with a public figure (the first was physicist Stephen Hawking in 1991’s A Brief History of Time). The rest of his work (including films such as The Thin Blue Line [1988] and Mr. Death [1999] and the 17-part TV series, First Person [2000, 2001]) has been about people who live far from the spotlight. The one thing they all have in common is the way they create private worlds that they can feel safe in, that they can control. Morris shows that McNamara is no exception.

The preceding is a revised version of my review of The Fog of War published in The Sunday Age on March 21, 2004. The following is the transcript of a video-link interview arranged by Columbia Tri-Star’s Cheryl Mulholland and recorded before a public audience at Melbourne’s Nova cinema in March 2004.

— Tom Ryan

* * *

Tom Ryan: Was it difficult to get McNamara’s cooperation?

Errol Morris

Errol Morris: It took me a number of years to make the call, but it turns out he was very easy to reach. He’s in the phone book, you call his office, he picks up the phone, you have Robert McNamara on the line.

I invited him to come to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live, for a filmed interview, and, much to my surprise, he accepted. I now think he did so because he saw me as part of his book tour. He had been promoting his most recent book, Wilson’s Ghost, and he saw me as just one more stop along the way.

I should remind you that this was before 9/11 – in May, 2001. And one of the enormous ironies of working on this movie is that, when I started, it was about history. It was about events that occurred 40, 50 or even 60 years ago. But as we continued to work on it, suddenly it became more and more obvious that we were making a movie about today, that the issues McNamara was talking about could be things that happened four, five, six days ago rather than 40, 50 or 60 years ago. And that was a surprise.

TR: Were there any conditions attached to the interview, or did you have open slather?

EM: I always felt that the interview could be terminated at any time. Two days before he came to Cambridge for the first time, I got a call from Mr McNamara and he told me, “Look, I’ve been talking to people about you and I’ve been told this is a very, very bad idea, that it makes no sense for me to come up and talk to you. You’re the wrong person for me to talk to. I can’t see how it’s going to benefit me in any way. In fact, I can see how this would be quite harmful to me”.

And he went on and on, explaining to me all the reasons why it made no sense to come up for the interview. Then, at the very end, he said, “But I agreed to do it, so I will do it”. And so he came up, first for only an hour. He was willing to give me an hour and then that was extended to two hours, and then that was extended to five hours over two days.

And then he gave me a homework assignment. He wanted me to edit this five hours of material, show it to him, and he said that if he liked it he’d come back again. I edited the material, he liked it, he came back, and we’re still talking. The movie itself is based on over 20 hours of interview material, but we’re still talking, and in truth I’m still very much interested in his whole story. I might’ve finished The Fog of War, but McNamara is still very, very interesting to me, still a very compelling figure, and I hope that we can go on talking for quite some time yet.

TR: Did he ask you to make any changes after he saw the finished film, or a close-to-finished cut?

EM: He was constantly asking for changes. In particular, he never liked my “lessons”. I put in my lessons, the 11 lessons, very, very late in the editing process. And he would point out to me repeatedly, “These are not my lessons; these are your lessons”. I promised to tell him that, whenever I appeared in public talking about the movie, I would point out to the audience, “These are not McNamara’s lessons; these are Errol Morris’ lessons”. So let me do that on this occasion: these are not McNamara’s lessons! They’re mine! Notwithstanding that, they’re still taken directly from things that McNamara says in my interviews with him.

And he doesn’t like the epilogue. He has asked me many, many times to remove the epilogue. The movie, in his opinion, would be much, much better without the epilogue. In my opinion, it would be much, much worse. So I declined to remove it.

TR: Why did you decide to omit his time as head of the World Bank?

EM: Because I’m making a movie! This is not, strictly speaking, history or biography or even a combination of both. It’s a story, and I had to pick and choose among the many, many parts of McNamara’s life and among the many, many stories he tells. To me, there was a story, a very powerful story that I wanted to include in the movie. In part it’s a Horatio Alger story, the story of a man who comes from relatively humble origins – his parents didn’t finish high school – who becomes this incredible achiever at the University of California and eventually as a faculty member at Harvard Business School.

And then he became part of this extraordinary war effort, was there through the post-war economic expansion, achieved his apotheosis as Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy administration and his decline and fall in the Johnson administration. It’s a very powerful story about a man who believes in rationality, who believes in rational solutions to economic, social and political problems, and who, at the end of this movie, admits quite sadly that rationality might not be enough.

TR: It might have produced a much softer view of McNamara had you actually dealt with the period where he was less directly involved with war and more involved with matters of world economy.

EM: Look, if you’re asking me the question “Would it have changed the movie for me to have changed its content?”, well, it’s hard to argue. But I included the stories that I thought were important. There’s a danger in this kind of movie of overwhelming an audience with so much historical detail, so much biographical material, that the story becomes impenetrable. I much prefer to take not all the stories, but a few stories that are important, and to try to tell them in greater detail, whether it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin, or McNamara’s involvement with seatbelts at the Ford motor company.

The Fog of War

I could probably sit here for several hours and tell you so many of the other stories that I’ve heard from McNamara, but I needed to make a movie, and, in truth, part of the process of making a movie is leaving things out. In fact, you’re leaving out so much more than you end up putting in – what you get to see is the tip of an iceberg. Most of the material that I produced is missing.

TR: In the critical response to your film, at least two directly opposed views seem to have emerged. One says that you seem to have done little more than dramatise McNamara’s book, and asks why you didn’t set a wider, more critical agenda? The other says you’re being unnecessarily harsh in your depiction of McNamara.

EM: Well, since the two responses are contradictory, let me take them each in turn. First, the criticism is that the movie is a rehash of “the book”. I’m not sure which book, because there are many stories in this movie that don’t appear anywhere else. They’re not in any of McNamara’s writings; they’re not in any of the full-length biographies of McNamara.

When I first started this interview there was a worry, a very obvious worry: that, unlike many of the people that I’ve interviewed in the past, this is a man who’s been interviewed by thousands of journalists, not just one or two, or maybe none at all. What did I expect to hear that was different from what he had told literally thousands of other people? And in fact he has told me things that have not appeared elsewhere. Among them his involvement with Curtis LeMay and the fire-bombing of Tokyo – not in any of his biographies. A story which in fact took me by surprise. Because here’s McNamara talking about what we consider to be a just war – World War II. After all, we were on the side of “good” and they were on the side of “evil”. But he’s telling us that he and LeMay quite possibly committed war crimes in their conduct of the war. Now, if someone has read this in a book, they should tell me which one, because I haven’t seen it yet.

I’ve also been criticised by American audiences who believe that I haven’t been hard enough on him, and I’d like to point out that I have a different philosophy on how to interview people. I worked as a private detective for many years. I was an out-of-work filmmaker, and the only way that I could make a living was as a private detective. And I found that, as a detective, I was doing much the same thing that I did as a filmmaker, which was basically listening to people.

I sometimes describe my school of interviewing as the shut-up-and-listen school, which frustrates some viewers, perhaps because they’ve become accustomed to that adversarial style of questioning where the journalist tries to back his subject into a corner or force him into contradiction, or force him into obvious lies that can be exposed. I’ve always felt that there’s much more to be learned by allowing people to express themselves, to reveal themselves.

Part of my enterprise, of course, is to learn about people, to try to enter their mental landscape, to learn how they see the world, how they imagine themselves in the world, and, in the case of McNamara, how they imagine themselves in history.

The Thin Blue Line has perhaps been unique among films because it’s not simply a film about a murder investigation. It is a murder investigation! In the course of making the movie I was, in fact, investigating a murder, sometimes with a camera. And as a result of the investigation that I did, some of my interview material was submitted into the state and federal courts in Texas. As a result of this investigation, I was able to get a man who’d been sentenced to die in the Texas electric chair out of prison. And some of the crucial evidence was uncovered, not because I was involved in adversarial questioning, but because I just was willing to listen to people talk.

I’ll give you a specific example. There was this crazy platinum blonde, Emily Miller, in The Thin Blue Line. I put her in front of my camera, and she started saying crazy things almost immediately. She talked about wanting to be a detective, or the wife of a detective; and she talked about all these detective movies that she liked to watch. She said – one of the favourite lines that I’ve heard as a filmmaker – “Everywhere I go there’s murders, even round my house”. A rather peculiar line. And then she started talking about how she had failed to pick out the defendant. This was Randall Adams, the man who’d been convicted, and sentenced to death, for the murder of this Dallas police officer. She started talking about how she had failed to pick him out of a police line-up, having forgotten that she had testified the exact opposite in court. In effect, she was admitting perjury. And I let her tell the whole story. She started going into enormous detail: “Well, I failed to pick him out because he was dressed differently. And he was looking at me funny. I couldn’t stand him looking at me that way”.

And at the very end of the interview, I was quiet. I asked her, “Emily, you say you failed to pick out Randall Adams in a police line-up. How do you know? How do you know you failed to pick him out?” And she said, “I know because the policeman sitting next to me in the line-up room told me I had pointed out the wrong person and then pointed out the right person so I wouldn’t make that mistake again”. That’s what got Randall Adams out of prison. And I submit that, if I had taken a more adversarial position with respect to McNamara, a) the interviews probably would never have happened, or would have ended very earlier on, and b) I would have uncovered a lot less interesting stuff.

TR: But you always get to fire the last shot, don’t you? Because, in bringing to bear upon the interview the whole battery of footage that you’ve chosen, the order in which you’ve chosen to present it, the analogies that you’re able to draw between images and things that are being said, that you’re not really “just letting him talk” or “shutting up and listening”. The filmmaking intervention does give your point of view?

EM: Absolutely. I have often asked myself, “Why does McNamara hate those ‘lessons’ so much?” I have a number of possible answers. One, is that I believe McNamara’s a far more optimistic person than I am. After all, he came from this can-do generation, this generation that triumphed over the Depression, successfully fought World War II, and participated in this amazing post-war economic boom. Whereas I’m from the Vietnam generation, a somewhat cynical, pessimistic, suspicious generation, that has a profound distrust of government.

My lessons are ironic, although many viewers somehow don’t notice this. But to me, they’re endlessly ironic. “Get the data” – but what if the data’s all wrong? “Maximise efficiency” – what if the efficiency in the end produces 100,000 deaths in one night from napalm? And, of course, the last lesson: “You can’t change human nature”, which tells us that perhaps the other ten lessons are meaningless.

You mentioned another response to the film: that I’ve been too hard on him. Of course, many of these differences are generational. People who grew up during the Vietnam War are, many of them, disinclined even to listen to McNamara, no matter what he has to say. And people who are much younger, people who are in their 20s and even younger, know nothing about Vietnam and come to the film without strong feelings one way or the other about this man. I would say, though, for both generations, for young people and for older people, regardless of what McNamara has done in the past, he’s lived through and has been part of a lot of 20th century history. And what he has to say is relevant to the present time and it’s important, I believe, that we listen to him.

TR: While you were putting the film together, were you deliberately drawing out its relevance to the present?

EM: Not really, because, as I mentioned before, I started before 9/11. I was talking with some of my editors recently about this whole question: when did we really become aware of the movie’s relevance? And it happened slowly. I don’t think there was one point where I could say that I suddenly became aware of its relevance to current history.

History also kept catching up with the movie, in a very distressing fashion. First Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and then the post-war period in Iraq, or, if you like, the continuation of the war in Iraq. Every day that went by made the stories that McNamara is telling me in The Fog of War more and more relevant. And the questions at the heart of the movie were always there, and were there before all of these recent events, and are still there: Can we learn from history? Are we destined to repeat the mistakes that we’ve made in the past, again and again and again? Or can we learn from history and from the past?

I don’t think, for example, that Iraq is identical to Vietnam, but I do think that many of the mistakes that we made in Vietnam we are also making in Iraq.

TR: Do you think that people want to see their public figures in the kind of ambiguous or complex terms that you bring to McNamara?

EM: They may not want to, but they should. They should see the world in complex terms. I prefer the word “complex” to “ambiguous”. One of the things that I find particularly frightening about what is going on in the United States today is that we have a government that refuses to see anything in shades of grey. No subtlety, no complexity, just simply black and white, good and evil. We’re good, they’re evil, we’re right, they’re wrong, no discussion, no need for discussion.

The Fog of War

To me this is part of the problem. I think about McNamara’s first memory, which was of Armistice Day, the end of World War I, the war that was described by President Woodrow Wilson as the war to end all wars. A preventive war, in fact the ultimate preventive war. The war that was going to be fought so we’d never have to fight a war ever again, that would prevent all war.

Now, that’s an irony. “The war to end all war, the ultimate preventive war” ushered in a century of the worst carnage in human history. Over a hundred million people killed. And here’s my view. There is no such thing as a “preventive war”. It’s an oxymoron. War doesn’t prevent war; war produces more war. It leaves in its wake the hostilities, confusions and imbalances that produce war.

And here we are at the beginning of the 21st century in the United States with a president who’s talking about preventive war all over again. Have we learned nothing? It seems to me like the ultimate idiocy.

TR: I was thinking as I was watching the film that the words “Secretary of Defense” seem like a euphemism for “Secretary of Plan of Attack”, given that everything was about making strikes rather than actually defending.

EM: Well, you know, the term was changed from “Secretary of War, Secretary of Navy” during World War II to “Secretary of Defense” following the war. But it’s not clear what’s being defended at the moment.

TR: Did your opinion of Robert McNamara change during the course of the documentary’s making?

EM: Of course. It changed a lot, and it’s still changing. This is a man I hated. Many people of my generation hated him and still hate him. But during the course of making the film, I discovered new things about him, things that I did not know about and I don’t believe anybody really knows about.

I’m an obsessive investigator. Maybe I’m not revealing anything here, but we investigated everything that McNamara talked about, like the fire-bombing of Tokyo. We went to the national archives and much to our amazement we found hundreds of pages of his World War Two documents, his own memoranda, his notes. In fact, those numbers that you see falling over Tokyo are McNamara’s hand-written numbers from World War II, from 1945.

I also became obsessed with the presidential recordings. For many people in my generation, McNamara is the man who pressed Lyndon Johnson into escalating the war. People think it’s his fault, that he wanted this war, that he created this war. He was the ultimate hawk: as he’s described in the movie, “the IBM machine with legs”, the statistician, the number-cruncher, devoid of ethical sensibilities, who escalated the war and then cried crocodile tears when it was too late.

What’s interesting to me is that, during the process of making the movie, it became clear that it was a much more complex story. In the movie, you hear him telling John F. Kennedy, in October 1963, “We need a way to get out of Vietnam. Set a date for removing all of our advisors and get out by 1965. After the ’64 elections, get out”. Kennedy is killed and then we hear Johnson chastising McNamara for making these recommendations to Kennedy. Johnson says, “I sat and listened as you and the President talked about removing the advisors. I did not agree”. He’s referring to that October conversation that you hear in the movie. “I did not agree. I was thinking, ‘How the hell does McNamara think he can pull out troops when we’re losing the war?’”

Of course, in the movie, you don’t have all of the research that I’ve done. You have, again, bits and pieces of it. But these conversations tell a very different story from the one that has entered history. Not the story of McNamara pushing Johnson into war, but the other way around. And it raises a question – I think it’s a very important question for people in this country and perhaps for people all over the world. What do you do as a member of government when you serve a bellicose president who wants to go to war? What the hell do you do?

And, again, I’m not sure I would say history caught up with the film. Maybe history just repeated the themes of the film, because we see Colin Powell at the United Nations saying he had incontrovertible proof that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Was he lying? Was he self-deceived? Was he toeing the party line? What in fact was going on? It’s very hard for me to see scenes like that and not be reminded of McNamara and his role in the early escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964.

TR: Did your view of McNamara change, though, as you were sitting there talking to the man, watching him close to the edge of tears as he talks about the death of Kennedy, seeing him actually confess to you his sense of guilt? Or do you read that still as a kind of performance for the public?

EM: Can’t it be both? For example, people get very angry at McNamara because, they say, he hasn’t apologised. “How come you didn’t get him to apologise?” Sometimes they get angry at me. And I remember thinking, “At what point during the interview do I want to hear this man apologise? Is this really what I want to hear?” And I thought to myself, “No, I don’t. Because there is no apology for Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand Americans dead, literally millions of Vietnamese. Why would I want to hear ‘I’m sorry’?”

And then I started to wonder: why is it so important to people that he apologise? Why is this such a big thing for many, many people? And I developed a theory of apologies – that we like apologies because they empower us. If someone you don’t like apologises to you, you can just say, “I don’t accept your apology. Screw you!”

I believe that people wanted McNamara to apologise so they could reject it. Instead, he’s done something quite interesting: he’s gone back obsessively over history trying to figure out what he’s done, who he is, what it means, and whether it has to happen again and again and again. Could he have done differently?

If you like, it’s a man going over his life trying to figure out whether he is a good man or a bad man. And I find his attempt to go back again and again over history, his obsession with “counter-factuals”, which he mentions in the movie, questions of what might have been, very, very moving and very powerful and endlessly interesting.

TR: It also links him to virtually all the characters in your films, as people who create private worlds that they can feel safe in.

The Fog of War

EM: Well, that’s true. I constantly feel the pull of his belief in rationality, versus the stories he’s telling. I should confess this: it’s one of the reasons I was powerfully attracted to this material. Look at these stories – this is a movie about a control freak. The first two scenes of the movie are about a man who wants to control everything. You see him controlling a press conference in 1964, and then you hear him trying to control his interview with me in 2001. Yet this control freak is telling you stories about a world out of control.

His account of the Cuban Missile Crisis is not the story that we hear in Thirteen Days (Roger Donaldson, 2000), where the Kennedys save the world. This is a story where we lucked out. We had false, misleading information from the CIA, we had a bellicose Joint Chief, who wanted to bomb and invade, and the end result could have been World War III, as easily as not.

We have the Gulf of Tonkin, where we actually imagined an attack which never happened. Story after story after story of confusion, error, self-deception, mistaken ideology… You might call it a sad and somewhat disturbing spectacle.

TR: Can we talk a little more about the style of your films? For example, what is it about the Philip Glass’ music which brings you back to him? The Fog of War is the third time you’ve used it (after The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time). Even Caleb Sampson’s score for Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997) also has a Glass edge to it.

And you repeatedly use jump cuts and black leader to interrupt what otherwise might have been smoothly flowing interviews.

EM: Style is a very complicated thing. For years I’ve wanted to make a movie with one subject, a feature-length movie, and I’m not sure, but I may have pulled it off this time around. When this film was shown, very, very early on, at the New York Film Festival, journalists asked me, “Are you aware that you only interviewed one person for this movie?” And I said “Well, yes, as a matter of fact I am aware of that. It’s by choice”. Why? Because, after all, that in itself is a very significant stylistic decision. Because I’m interested in two things, two wildly divergent things. On the one hand, you have a subjective account, a person giving an intensely subjective account of his experience. And on the other hand, I’m littering his account with objective evidence, whether it’s presidential recordings, or documents, or historical clips that take you back to the events themselves. A mixture of the intensely objective and the intensely subjective without much in between. A stylistic choice.

I have always edited my interviews heavily. To me there’s a kind of internal music to monologue. In this particular instance, I chose to show the edits. Often I hide them by burying them under various kinds of visual material. In this case you actually see the edits. I’ve never really done it before. I just somehow like the idea. And I like the idea that we see McNamara from all of these different vantage points: he’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere.

The Philip Glass music! As you say, this is my third collaboration with Philip. The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time and now The Fog of War. And the music has, of course, been an essential part of all three of these movies. I can’t imagine any of them without his contribution. If the central theme of this movie is the inexorability of history versus the question of whether one man can make a difference, can change the course of historical events, there is something about Philip’s music – and this is true in all three films – that mirrors this, that mixes chance with a kind of inevitability. I may not be explaining it very well, but it provides a powerful metaphor, a musical metaphor, for the rest of the movie.

About The Author

Tom Ryan’s most recent book is The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (2019), published by the University Press of Mississippi. His Alan J. Pakula: Interviews will be published in September this year.

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