The Fog Of War

The Fog Of War - Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War

Robert McNamara is implicated in the deaths of thousands of Japanese civilians.

by Joe Sinclair, Sept 2004

As a military tactician during World War Two Robert McNamara helped plan a strategy which included the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities and the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a timely meditation on the ethics of war Errol Morris' Oscar-winning documentary sees McNamara face to face with the camera, exploring issues of truth, judgement, responsibility, killing and conflict.

McNamara started his career as a Berkeley statistician and went on to become US Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson during the Cold War and Vietnam. His detractors have called him a con man, an IBM machine with legs and an arrogant dictator. However, in his typically detached and analytical mode, McNamara describes himself as part of a mechanism which made weakening the enemy more efficient.

Now in his eighties, McNamara's mottled face and croaky voice betray his age, but his intellect and recollection remain sharp. He proves to be an insightful but elusive character, maintaining the distance and control of a career politician. Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you, he says. And his testimony is more analysis than confession.

McNamara claims that his rule has been to try to learn, try to understand what happened, develop the lessons and pass them on. Although he doesn't comment directly on the current world situation, he clearly believes that the lessons of previous wars should be learnt and are relevant in today's world.

During World War Two McNamara served under General Curtis LeMay, an extraordinary belligerent, many thought brutal, man. But McNamara cannot help betraying a certain admiration for LeMay's scientific approach to war. He describes how LeMay focused solely on the loss of his crews per unit of target destruction.

Beneath the euphemistic language McNamara is struggling to deal with the horror of his own actions. He chillingly describes the firebombing of Tokyo: In a single night we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians men, women and children.

But it was not just Tokyo. McNamara claims that the bombing campaign killed 50 to 90 percent of the people in 67 Japanese cities. This, of course, was followed by the dropping of two nuclear bombs. He concedes that this is not proportional in the minds of some people to the objectives we were trying to achieve. But there is no apology or admission of guilt, and by using the qualification in the minds of some people McNamara doesn't even commit to an opinion of his own.

On August 6 1945 at 8.15am the Enola Gay B-29 bomber dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy above Hiroshima. The initial blast destroyed everything within a 1.5 mile radius. By the end of the year about 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were dead. Many died of radiation poisoning. Three days after the Hiroshima uranium bomb "Little Boy," Fat Man a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, resulting in a further 70,000 deaths.

The film leaves it up to the audience to read between the lines as to whether McNamara believes what he did was right, or whether there even can be such a thing as right during times of war. But McNamara does believe that the human race needs to grapple with the rules of war, to make the legal framework more clear cut. He asks the appalling question: Was there a rule then to say that you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death one hundred thousand civilians in a single night?

He struggles to come to terms with this void between law and morality: LeMay said if we lost the war we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals, but what makes it immoral if you lose but not immoral if you win?

The film goes on to looks at McNamara's role as Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War. He orchestrated a bombing campaign of North Vietnam during which two to three times as many bombs were dropped as on the whole of Western Europe during World War Two, killing thousands of innocent civilians and strengthening Vietnamese resolve firmly against the Americans.

He was also guilty of trying to manipulate public perception of the war and authorising the use of Agent Orange. 58,000 Americans, 224,000 South Vietnamese and an estimated one million North Vietnamese were killed during the conflict.

Despite all of this the overwhelming impression is that McNamara is a thinking man, still coming to terms with what he has done. And he encourages us to think as well. He warns that no country or leader is omniscient, and that the unilateral application of economic, political and military power is a great threat to world security. He also cautions against nuclear weapons which have the power to destroy nations with no learning period. The man with ultimate responsibility, he says, is the man with his finger on the button, and he is ultimately fallible. Let's hope that the men with the fingers take time out to watch this film.

Japan articles by Joe Sinclair

Interview with a Kabuki Actor
Hitch-Hiking in Japan
Japan Travel Tips: Missing the last train in Tokyo
Hot Spring Bathing in Japan
Tokyo Story - Movie Review
Memoirs of a Geisha - Movie Review
Twilight Samurai - Movie Review
Fear And Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) - Movie Review
Zatoichi - Movie Review
Interview with David Mitchell, author of "Cloud Atlas"

Books on Japan & World War II