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Fog of War

The 2003 documentary film “The Fog of War” is basically an interview with Robert S. McNamara who recounts his life’s experiences as related to his job as the Secretary of National Defense during the time of President John Kennedy up to the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. At the age of 85 years old, McNamara stressed that he has learned a lot of things. He thinks he is already qualified to share the wisdom he has learned, hence, he enumerates eleven lessons pertaining to the war and experiences related to these.

1) There are certain aspects of American government and/or politics which the film explicitly taught, explained and illustrated. One of these is that the government officials are, in actuality, merely leaders who make their decisions based on rational choices, intelligent advice and their subjective preferences. When McNamara was hired by then President Kennedy as the Secretary of Defense, he was hesitant to take the position because he thought that he was not qualified enough to do the job.

What convinced McNamara however was what Kennedy stated that there are really no rules to the position, in the same way that there are also no schools especially made to train presidents. As there are no rules to prepare anyone for any government position, there are also no fixed policies in decision-making, especially when it came to matters of national defense. McNamara delineated this when he said that Kennedy had this proclivity to keep the US out of war, which was totally opposed to what Johnson did during his administration, resulting to a worsened situation in Vietnam.

Another aspect expounded on is the possibility of making mistakes or errors in judgment when making critical decisions. Each person should be reminded that being in government denotes having much power, but that such supremacy is also equated with great responsibility and sensible decision-making. McNamara underlines it in the film that a great leader or military commander is one who will admit to his mistakes in carrying out his duties especially pertaining to casualties in the war during the times of conflict.

He cites several examples in the film like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the “Agent Orange” operation. Both procedures were counter-attacks which were carried out in error. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution had an erroneous basis – the US called on the escalation of troops on a mistaken claim that enemy troops launched an attack on the US forces, which was actually a false alarm. The other which was a chemical weapon supposedly used to strip the leaves off the trees in the forest – being inadequately assessed — resulted to the unexpected death of numerous civilians and American soldiers alike.

Still another aspect of US politics which was illustrated in this movie was that individual differences in opinion (of the government leaders) does not take precedence in governing but rather what was for the best interest of the country. McNamara was vocal in his predilection for President Kennedy’s moves to keep the country out of war. However, after Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s ascent to power, the US has figured in numerous wars and military offense/defense tactics to defeat their opponents, and McNamara held the prime position at the Department of National Defense at that time.

This connotes carrying out the instructions of then US President Johnson, directions which he may or may not agree to, but nevertheless had to accomplish in consonance with his duties. In retrospect, Johnson also mentioned to McNamara — before the US actively participated in the war — that he did not really approve of Kennedy’s decisions then, but still he kept mum about it in order to retain the stability in the public office / governance.

In both cases, McNamara and Johnson showed reverence to the position of the president; it further exemplifies the high regard for the leadership, as well as upholding the best interest of the country as taking precedence above personal or subjective inclinations. All the same, up to the time the movie was shot, McNamara still believed that things would have been different for Vietnam had President Kennedy lived. 2) One of the more important messages this film seeks to send to its audience is that in a situation of war, one should empathize with the enemy and try to learn what it is which makes the condition a hostile one.

This is Lesson No. 1 among McNamara’s Eleven Lessons in the movie. This would not have been placed as the first lesson if it were not deemed essential. An application of this lesson as mentioned by McNamara was the situation in Cuba in 1962 when the world was almost subjected to a nuclear war. If not for the advice made by Tommy Thompson urging then President Kennedy to listen to the “soft message” sent on the telegraph, war would have erupted and most people would not have been able to live through this experience.

It was with the same approach that McNamara wanted to handle the situation in Vietnam then, but President Johnson thought differently. McNamara even discouraged sending more troops to Vietnam due to the uncertainty of the situation and to prevent more casualties from the US side. The US saw Vietnam as part of the Cold War. Conversely, Vietnam thought that the US wanted to make them into another one of their colonies in Asia, and Vietnam fought fiercely for their sovereignty and independence – in other words, Vietnam thought it was a Civil War they were fighting.

In effect, there was a misunderstanding of sorts and this resulted to thousands of casualties on both sides. Another political theme in this movie is the limit of human rationality. It was partly discussed previously that errors in judgment also occurred in the decisions made during the war. Sometimes, despite trying to consider numerous factors, weighing them, searching for the best option, errors just happen and some situations do not work in accordance with what was planned.

On such occasions, the best alternative which the leaders do is to learn from what happened and to try not to commit the same mistake all over again. An additional theme which is apparent in this film is that sometimes, sacrifice is necessary to achieve a greater good. Again, this is embodied in McNamara’s Lesson No. 9 which states that: “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. ” This was illustrated by Norman Morrison who burned himself to death in front of McNamara’s office in order to get his message across – that is, to stop the war because too many people have already died.

This is the same logic which is used in recruiting soldiers who were deployed to Vietnam at the height of the US-Vietnam war. The number of US Army troops sent to Vietnam reached about 400,000 where more than 10% were injured and around 18,000, more or less, have died. It was worse in Vietnam because men, women and children alike became victims to the war which none of them wanted to happen in the first place. Up to the present, the scars created by the Vietnam war are still vivid in the minds of the local residents.

Primarily, the misunderstanding between the US and Vietnam was what worsened the situation which could have been prevented if communication took place. Lastly, the term “fog of war” is explained at the last portion of the film. It tries to elucidate the nature of war which is actually difficult to describe. Somehow, the term “fog” implies cloudiness or the difficulty in discerning the true nature of war since many factors are involved, and winning does not necessarily indicate success per se because of the many casualties, injuries and damages which usually result from it.

As conveyed in the movie, the human mind cannot adequately comprehend the necessity of war among countries but it is still considered necessary for the prevention of scenarios of a worse degree. Not having war does not also guarantee greater peace, therefore, the goal should be one where lesser lives or minimal sacrifice of human lives will be the goal. References Morris, E. , Williams, M. , & Ahlberg, J. Morris, E. 2003. The Fog of War. United States: Sony Pictures Classics.

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