Robert S. McNamara was one of the brightest minds of the twentieth century yet he was still unable to prevent one of the fieriest conflagrations in modern times from exploding. Reflecting upon his time as Secretary of Defence for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, he grants a lengthy interview with director Errol Morris, who combines the 2003 discourse with archival footage, original tape recordings, and thoughtful music composed by Philip Glass.
McNamara does not limit himself solely his role in the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam but explains his background, education, military service during World War II, and work to revitalize the Ford Motor Company. He reveals that he enrolled in several philosophy courses during his years at Berkley and one can see how his insight is more nuanced than his black and white, statistics-based reputation would suggest.
Forty years removed from the Pentagon, McNamara believes that he has finally gained the perspective and the experience to accurately evaluate his service in the cabinet. Obviously, he devotes a significant segment of the film to his innovative use of statistics in the military (minimizing the “casualty rate per unit of destruction”) and the automotive industry (introducing seatbelts and other inventions to better “package” the driver when they are on the road) but The Fog of War is much more than a risk-management thesis. McNamara talks about different ideas, such as empathy with the enemy in order to understand their motivation and the humility required to reconsider one’s ideas and change course when justified by the evidence.
The overall effect of the film is subtle. War – including tactics such as the fire-bombing of Japan and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam – may have been chaotic but the film possesses a calm, reflective mood. It is still possible to revisit the decisions of the past and analyze how they could be applied to the present day. McNamara acknowledges that his choices were not always correct but states that it is difficult to make perfect decisions based on imperfect information. Leadership is dynamic and it is better to constantly assess the situation and be willing to change than stubbornly follow the same goals and strategies.