The Fog of War

The Fog of War Information

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 American documentary film about the life and times of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara as well as illustrating his observations of the nature of modern warfare. The film was directed by Errol Morris and the original score is by Philip Glass. The title is related to the military phrase "Fog of War", describing the difficulty of making decisions in the midst of conflict.

The film won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was non-competitively screened at the Cannes Film Festival.


Using archival footage, United States Cabinet conversation recordings, and an interview of the then eighty-five-year-old Robert McNamara, The Fog of War depicts his life, from his birth during the First World War remembering the time American troops returned from Europe, to working as a World War II Whiz Kid military officer, to being the Ford Motor Company's president, to serving as Secretary of Defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (including his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War).

In a 2004 appearance at U.C. Berkeley, Errol Morris said his inspiration for the documentary derived from McNamara's book (with James G. Blight), Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (2001). Morris interviewed McNamara for some twenty hours; the two-hour documentary comprises eleven lessons from In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). He posits, discourses upon, and propounds the lessons in the interview that is The Fog of War. Moreover, at the U.C. Berkeley event, McNamara disagreed with Morris's interpretations in The Fog of War, yet, on completion, McNamara supplemented the original eleven lessons with an additional ten lessons; they are in The Fog of War DVD.

When asked to apply the eleven lessons from In Retrospect to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, McNamara refused, arguing that ex-secretaries of defense must not comment upon the incumbent defense secretary's policies. He suggested other people could apply the eleven lessons to the war in Iraq, but that he would not, noting that the lessons are about war in general, not a specific war.


The overall plot of the film focuses on the interviews of former Secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who was interviewed for about 20 hours by the director of the documentary, Errol Morris, through a special device called the "Interrotron" which allows the interviewee to look directly in the camera. Use of this device is believed to bring more life to the abstract idea of the interview. In the interviews, McNamara talks about aspects of international security and how and by what means it can be influenced by circumstances. The documentary explores recent events in American history and also focuses on McNamara's life and how he rose from a humble American family to be a politician who achieved enormous power and influence. McNamara worked with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and with general Curtis LeMay, and had direct access to many governmental documents. His opinions, personal experiences and lessons learned while serving as a Secretary of Defense can provide the audience with an enlightening philosophy and outlook on American politics. The documentary covers important events such as World War II, Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and many others that McNamara himself witnessed. McNamara is believed to be the "architect" of the Vietnam war; a war that cost an enormous number of lives against a foe whose resolve he seriously underestimated. McNamara's interview, along with archival footage, offers a close look at international security and the international relations of the US, and an insight into why certain conflicts occur and the lessons that can be learned from these conflicts.


McNamara: LeMay was focused on only one thing: target destruction. Most Air Force Generals can tell you how many planes they had, how many tons of bombs they dropped, or whatever the hell it was. But, he was the only person that I knew in the senior command of the Air Force who focused solely on the loss of his crews per unit of target destruction. I was on the island of Guam in his command in March 1945 that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children. Well, 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 weakening the adversary. I remember reading that General Sherman in the Civil War ...the mayor of Atlanta pleaded with him to save the city. And Sherman essentially said to the mayor just before he torched it and burned it down: "War is cruel. War is cruelty." That was the way LeMay felt.

McNamara: It's almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my 7 years as Secretary, we came within a hair's breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 7 years as Secretary of Defense, I lived the Cold War ...Hell, it was a hot war!

McNamara: I was serving at the request of the President [Johnson], who had been elected by the American people. And it was my responsibility to try to help him to carry out the office as he believed was in the interest of our people. We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. What is morally appropriate in a wartime environment? How much evil must we do in order to do good? Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it. People did not understand at that time there were recommendations and pressures that would carry the risk of war with China and carry the risk of nuclear war. And he [Johnson] was determined to prevent it. I'm arguing that he had a reason in his mind for doing what he did.

EM: How was your thinking changing during this [Vietnam War] period?
McNamara: I don't think my thinking was changing. We were in the Cold War and this was a Cold war activity.

EM: When you talk about the responsibility for something like the Vietnam War, whose responsibility is it?
McNamara: It's the president's responsibility.

EM: After you left the Johnson administration, why didn't you speak out against the Vietnam War?
McNamara: I'm not going to say any more than I have. These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You don't know what I know about how inflammatory my words can appear. A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch.

EM: And at this point, how many Americans had been killed in Vietnam?
McNamara: About 25,000. Less than half of the number ultimately killed: 58,000.

EM: Do you feel in any way responsible for the War? Do you feel guilty?
McNamara: I don't want to go any further with this discussion. It just opens up more controversy. I don't want to add anything to Vietnam. It is so complex that anything I say will require additions and qualifications.

EM: Is it the feeling that you're damned if you do, and if you don't, no matter what?
McNamara: Yeah, that's right. And I'd rather be damned if I don't.


Reviews for the film were very positive. The film received an overall score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, thus obtaining a "Certified Fresh" rating. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Although McNamara is photographed through the Interrotron, the movie is far from offering only a talking head. Morris is uncanny in his ability to bring life to the abstract, and here he uses graphics, charts, moving titles and visual effects in counterpoint to what McNamara is saying." Peter on Internet Movie Database wrote; "Robert McNamara: Good or Evil?" lies entirely in the mind of the beholder, and very few minds appear capable (or willing) to think outside one of those two extremes. Hopefully that is just a sign of our times, and one day it will end so that people can appreciate this film for what it is: McNamara's [selected] "memoirs" edited by another person. It's not necessarily the truth, but not necessarily a revisionist version of history either. It's just McNamara talking about his life experiences in his own way, for his own reasons. And it's fascinating.

However, some of the reviews were not as flattering. Charles Taylor of wrote, "Errol Morris tries to pin down Vietnam War chess-master Robert McNamara, and the results are fascinating -- also troubling, deeply confusing and way too artistically precious." His review clearly emphasizes the fact that this particular documentary has been blurred with many unnecessary artistic techniques that could have been avoided. Nonetheless, Curt Holman of Creative Loafing had a largely positive view on those techniques used in the film. He writes, "Morris uses a device he calls the "Interrotron," which permits his subjects to look directly at the camera and see Morris on a small monitor. The effect on film is that the interviewees appear to sustain eye contact with the audience."

Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

These topics were selected by Errol Morris and highlighted in the film; they were not selected by McNamara.

  • Empathize with your enemy
  • Rationality will not save us
  • There's something beyond one's self
  • Maximize efficiency
  • Proportionality should be a guideline in war
  • Get the data
  • Belief and seeing are often both wrong
  • Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
  • In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
  • Never say never
  • You can't change human nature

Ten additional lessons from R.S. McNamara

These topics were selected by McNamara to supplement the documentary; they are in the DVD's special features.

  1. The human race will not eliminate war in this century, but we can reduce the brutality of war"?the level of killing"?by adhering to the principles of a "Just War," in particular to the principle of "proportionality."
  2. The indefinite combinations of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.
  3. We [the U.S.A.] are the most powerful nation in the world"?economically, politically, and militarily"?and we are likely to remain so for decades ahead. But we are not omniscient. If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of the proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.
  4. Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign policy and defense policy, but surely we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of U.S. foreign policy and, indeed, of foreign policy across the globe: the avoidance, in this century of the carnage"?160 million dead"?caused by conflict in the 20th century.
  5. We, the richest nation in the world, have failed in our responsibility to our own poor and to the disadvantaged across the world to help them advance their welfare in the most fundamental terms of nutrition, literacy, health and employment.
  6. Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course, they have responsibilities to stockholders, but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers and to society as a whole.
  7. President Kennedy believed a primary responsibility of a president"?indeed the primary responsibility of a president"?is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.
  8. War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations, and economic sanctions are rarely effective. Therefore, we should build a system of jurisprudence based on the International Court"?that the U.S. has refused to support"?which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.
  9. If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy"?I don't mean "sympathy," but rather "understanding""?to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.
  10. One of the greatest dangers we face today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction as a result of the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Regime. We in the U.S. are contributing to that breakdown.

Robert McNamara's 11 lessons from Vietnam

From Robert McNamara's 1995 book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam".

  1. We misjudged then "? and we have since "? the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries ? and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.
  2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience ? We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
  3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
  4. Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.
  5. We failed then "? and have since "? to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
  6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement ? before we initiated the action.
  7. After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course ? we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.
  8. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people's or country's best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.
  9. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action ? should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
  10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions ? At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.
  11. Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues.


Sony Pictures Classics allowed proceeds from limited screenings of The Fog of War to benefit Clear Path International's work with victims of war in Vietnam.

See also

  • The Gatekeepers

This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "The_Fog_of_War" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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