My dear friend and late Nation colleague Andrew Kopkind liked to tell how, skiing in Aspen at the height of the Vietnam War, he came round a bend and saw another skier, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, alone near the edge of a precipice. This was during the period of Rolling Thunder, which ultimately saw three times as many bombs dropped on Vietnam as the Allies dropped on Europe in the Second World War. “I could have reached out with my ski pole,” Andy would say wistfully, “and pushed him over.”
Alas, Andy missed this chance to get into the history books and McNamara survived the 1960s, when he contributed more than most to the slaughter of 3.4 million Vietnamese (his own estimate). He went on to run the World Bank, where he presided over the impoverishment, eviction from their lands and death of many millions more round the world. And now here he is, the star of Errol Morris’s much-praised documentary The Fog of War, talking comfortably about the millions of people he’s helped to kill. 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.
It’s good to have a new generation reminded of history’s broad outlines, like the firebombing of Japanese cities and Vietnam, but I don’t think Morris laid a glove on McNamara, who should be feeling well pleased. Like Speer, he got away with it yet again.
The documentary’s gimmickry–cuts to black, Morris shouting his questions away from the mike, McNamara off-center in the frame, montage of typewriter-ribbon wheels, skulls dropping in slow motion down a stairwell, captions offering banal “lessons”–gives us a clue. Morris didn’t have much to throw at McNamara. He didn’t do enough homework. Time and again, McNamara gets away with it, muffling himself in the ever-useful camouflage of the “fog of war,” cowering in the shadow of baroque monsters like Curtis LeMay or LBJ, choking up about his choice of Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington, choking up at the memory of Johnson giving him the Medal of Freedom, spouting nonsense about how Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam.
When McNamara looks back down memory lane there are no real shadows, just the sunlight of moral self-satisfaction: “I don’t fault Truman for dropping the bomb…”; “I never saw Kennedy more shocked” (after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem); “never would I have authorized an illegal action” (after the Tonkin Gulf fakery); “I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I’m very sorry I made errors” (his life). Slabs of instructive history are missing from Morris’s film. McNamara came in on one of the biggest of big lies, the bogus “missile gap.” As Defense Secretary he ordered the production of 1,000 Minuteman nukes, this at a time when he was looking at US intelligence reports showing that the Soviets had one silo with one untested missile.