THE FOG OF WAR: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara


Seldom does a person of Robert McNamara’s stature allow us such a vulnerable look into his life.  Having played a major part in some of the most important moments in the history of the 20th century, this documentary is haunting in its revelations and unnerving in its ethical discussions. Directed by Errol Morris, the conversation with McNamara is interspersed with films, recordings and images of the situations they discuss.

The eleven lessons are not unusual or profound.  They are, in fact, extrapolations that Errol Morris creates out of McNamara’s descriptions of the events he experienced.  Coming out of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was Secretary of Defense for President Kennedy, he asserts Lesson #1:  “Empathize with your enemy.”  McNamara claims that it was our leaders’ ability to put themselves in Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes that made it possible for both countries to avert a nuclear war.  It was years later, when McNamara visited Cuba and spoke face to face with Fidel Castro, that he discovered our intelligence was wrong and many of the nuclear warheads were fully functional.

Yet, when McNamara was serving President Johnson during the Vietnam War, he said they failed to “empathize” with their enemy and were wrong about their assumptions that this was an “event of the cold war.”  He suggests Lesson #8:  “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.”  Having been blamed for the Vietnam War, which the media of the 1960’s called “McNamara’s War,” it is revealing to hear newly released telephone tapes in which McNamara and Kennedy were pulling out of Vietnam and President Johnson reversed this decision after the assassination of President Kennedy.  For several years, McNamara tried to serve as Johnson’s Defense Secretary, but finally opposed him over the Vietnam War and was fired.

One of the most haunting ethical discussions occurred when McNamara served as a Lt. Col. under the command of Gen. Curtis Le May.  Serving primarily as a tactician who explained that the B-29 bombing was ineffective statistically, it was then that Le May began a nightly campaign of incendiary bombs on the wooden cities of Japan.  In one night, McNamara explained, we killed 100,000 Japanese civilians.  This continued day after day, as the film places on the screen an American city of equivalent size that would have had 50% or 60% of its civilians killed each night.  Sixty-seven Japanese cities were destroyed in this way.   Quoting Le May as saying they would have been tried as war criminals if they had lost the war, McNamara asks the question that is obviously haunting his soul decades later at the age of 85:  "But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

Other lessons, such as “Rationality will not save us” and “You can’t change human nature” carry a cynicism that is not overshadowed by his Lesson #3: “There is Something beyond one’s self.”  This awareness that there is a Higher Good to which we are all accountable is clearly not a primary lesson in McNamara’s life.  It is disturbing to consider what would have been different for all of us if he had not just intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually accepted its truth.  It is a lesson that many still find hard to accept.



  1. Do you believe that McNamara has accepted responsibility for his part in these events that cost so many human beings their lives?  If so or not, what would be different in his explanations?
  2. Do you believe the ability of McNamara to detach his intellect from his heart was a strength or a weakness in his position as our Secretary of Defense?
  3. These eleven lessons of McNamara have uncanny implications for our present international situations.  What do you think our present Secretary of Defense can learn from watching this film?
  4. Could you serve as the Secretary of Defense of our nation?  How would you both defend a nation against attack and keep your moral and spiritual bearings?