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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Fog Of War

Illustration for article titled The Fog Of War

In a particularly inspired use of archival footage during Errol Morris' masterful documentary The Fog Of War, the devastating firebombs rained down on Japan in WWII are suddenly transformed into a cluster of numbers dropping from the skies. At the time, the film's fascinating and elusive subject, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, was working in the Air Force's statistical wing, analyzing raw data in order to make missions more efficient and successful. In war, that means more enemy casualties, higher numbers to fill out the spreadsheet. Reducing human lives to numbers initially sounds like the least charitable reading on McNamara, tagging him as every bit the arrogant bean-counter vilified by his critics, a man who justified killings through the worst sort of moral relativism. On the other hand, it also underlines McNamara's point about "proportionality," which he describes as the need for leaders to consider how much loss is necessary in order to achieve victory. In the case of the firebombing of Japan–a campaign that burned 100,000 people to death in one night–McNamara feels there was no sense of proportion, going so far as to make the stunning admission that he and General Curtis LeMay would have been tried as war criminals had the Allied Forces lost. Subtitled "Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara," The Fog Of War neither damns nor exonerates its subject, but instead allows him the space to account for his actions. Whether viewers find his reflections candid, evasive, or somewhere in between is entirely up to them. Some have complained that Morris lets him off too easy, but great journalism isn't about nailing someone; it's about evoking the truth in all its thorny contradictions, and few can honestly claim to have a handle on McNamara, not least the man himself. With his unmistakable blend of intellectual curiosity and virtuosic technique, Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control) uses McNamara's involvement in three major conflicts as a window into larger issues of war and foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century. Moving in precise time to Philip Glass' propulsive score, the film zigzags freely through McNamara's personal and professional history, starting with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then doubling back to his childhood, his roles in WWII and the Ford Motor Company, his relationship to JFK and LBJ, and, finally, the Vietnam War. Though McNamara was labeled the war's "chief architect," Morris provides compelling recordings that suggest he was looking for a way out of the conflict, and that U.S. commitment was escalated at Lyndon Johnson's behest, over his strenuous objections. Whatever the case, The Fog Of War revisits the past with an eye on the present and future, hoping as McNamara does that his "lessons" are instructive and might keep history from repeating itself. One choice line, recorded before the war in Iraq, notes the dangers of unilateralism: "If we can't persuade nations of comparable values of the rightness of our cause, then we'd better reexamine our reasoning."

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