car·riage re·turn

n. the lever or mechanism on a typewriter that would cause the cylinder on which the paper was held (the carriage) to return to the left margin of the page


Good riddance:the death of a war criminal

One of the world’s most deplorable (and unfortunately,untried) war criminals,former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,died in the early hours of the morning today,aged 93 years.  McNamara’s New York Times’obituary names him “the most influential defense secretary of the 20th century,”a fitting epithet for a man who was in many ways the proto-Rumsfeld,an apparently cold-blooded technocrat brought to Washington by John F. Kennedy.  McNamara’s talent –systems analysis –birthed the tactical rationale for General Curtis “Bombs Away”LeMay’s firebombing of 67 Japanese cities during World War II.

McNamara: LeMay was focused on only one thing:target destruction. Most Air Force Generals can tell you how many planes they had,how many tons of bombs they dropped,or whatever the hell it was.

But,he was the only person that I knew in the senior command of the Air Force who focused solely on the loss of his crews per unit of target destruction. I was on the island of Guam in his command in March of 1945. In that single night,we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo:men,women,and children.

Errol Morris: Were you aware this was going to happen?

McNamara: Well,I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations,and how to make them more efficient. i.e. Not more efficient in the sense of killing more,but more efficient in weakening the adversary.

I wrote one report analyzing the efficiency of the B—29 operations. The B—29 could get above the fighter aircraft and above the air defense,so the loss rate would be much less. The problem was the accuracy was also much less.

Now I don’t want to suggest that it was my report that led to,I’ll call it,the firebombing. It isn’t that I’m trying to absolve myself of blame. I don’t want to suggest that it was I who put in LeMay’s mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed. But,anyhow,that’s what he did. He took the B—29s down to 5,000 feet and he decided to bomb with firebombs.

50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city,and when we dropped these firebombs,it just burned it.

Errol Morris: The choice of incendiary bombs,where did that come from?

McNamara: I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is:in order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night,by firebombing or any other way? LeMay’s answer would be clearly “Yes.”

“McNamara,do you mean to say that instead of killing 100,000,burning to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in that one night,we should have burned to death a lesser number or none? And then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?”

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga,which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles,which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb,which by the way was dropped by LeMay’s command.

Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional,in the minds of some people,to the objectives we were trying to achieve.

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.—Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history –kamikaze pilots,suicide,unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time –and today –has not really grappled with what are,I’ll call it,“the rules of war.”Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb,shouldn’t kill,shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?

LeMay said,“If we’d lost the war,we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”And I think he’s right. He,and I’d say I,were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

- The Fog of War (2003)

McNamara posing “But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”to his audience creates an excellent opportunity to frame his involvement in the Vietnam War from the his own perspective.  If McNamara’s collaboration in the firebombing of Japan is excusable because the United States won World War II (and,given McNamara never faced charges as a war criminal,we must assume this is the international consensus),then what are we to make of his role in the millions of deaths concomitant with Vietnam?  If McNamara isn’t a war criminal because the United States won World War II,then isn’t Operation Rolling Thunder enough by itself to condemn McNamara as a consequence of America’s defeat in Vietnam?

The answer,of course,is that morality does not depend on,and cannot be dictated by,success or failure,and that McNamara engaged in criminal activity in both wars.  One must conclude that,on some level,McNamara realized this.  Thus,in 2003 we were treated to the self-serving,contrived mea culpa that is The Fog of War:Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.  It seems fitting that,on the occasion of the man’s death,we revisit the film.


Half-truths and obfuscations,the remaining smoke from an artillery barrage of twisted statistics fired in self-defense,shroud the Facts,those tiny riflemen of Truth,from the observers’ eyes.  These observers strain to discern the Forces of Truth through the choking smog,catching ghost-like glimpses of limbs and outlines of figures,but never focusing on a single identifiable form.  Perhaps their eyes are slightly out of focus,struggling to see through a bit of accumulated tear-water,present either from the irritating gas of the broken artillery shells,the effect of an eighty-five year old man’s crocodile tears,or from the wisps of somber,sober music floating in the atmosphere,unsettling in their disturbing beauty.

This is The Fog of War,an aptly-named movie,the title taken as such from the military term for the ambiguity that descends upon a battlefield,the uncertainty about self and enemy,about Good and Evil,the kind of mist where men lose their moral bearings and become unmoored,free radicals in a dubious ethical soup.  Robert McNamara comes across as steadfast in his portrayal of himself as a capable military leader who became lost in the thick of the fog of war in Vietnam,and who bears little of the responsibility for his actions during his tenure as Secretary of Defense.  To borrow a line from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh,if McNamara believes what he says in the film,he “must still be missing in the mist.”  That is,if there was any fog,smoke,or mist in McNamara’s Washington to begin with.

Throughout the documentary there are precious few interruptions by the interviewer.  It is quite clear from the presentation that this film is McNamara’s story;where he takes the story is his prerogative,shaped by his goals for telling it.  McNamara makes this practice quite clear,at one point remarking that his personal policy has always been to “never answer the question that is asked of you -  answer the question you wish had been asked of you.”

Equally telling is McNamara’s answer to a gentle probing by the interviewer on the subject of his reputation while Secretary of Defense as an arrogant technocrat who wouldn’t ever admit to being wrong.  McNamara responds (in the original 1960s interview cited by the interviewer) that while he’s certainly been wrong on occasion,that “I’m not going to tell you when I’m wrong.”

Nor does he.  As a documentary the plot is simply McNamara’s life story,encountered in a series of “lessons” which give the overall structure to the film.  Culled from the interviews,these lessons help the viewer navigate the story McNamara tells,though many of them are so vague as to seemingly contradict both one another and McNamara’s message,such as “Rationality will not save us.” “Get the data,” and “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.”

One particular portion of the film which proves problematic for McNamara is the subject of the firebombing of Tokyo during the Second World War.  McNamara was a member of Statistical Control,a portion of the then-US Army’s Air Force which analyzed mountains of data in an attempt to both increase tactical efficiency and reduce casualties.  While with Statistical Control,McNamara wrote a report stating that the high-altitude bombing of Japan by B-29s was grossly inefficient,despite the bombers being designed to operate from that altitude to evade anti-aircraft fire.  General Curtis LeMay,who McNamara characterized as “focused solely on loss of crews per unit of target destruction,” subsequently ordered the low-altitude firebombing of Tokyo,likely based adjusting the ratio of casualties incurred to damage inflicted by firebombs on a wooden city.  McNamara states he “doesn’t want to suggest” it was his report which lead to the firebombing (although it was certainly the type of statistical research LeMay would have devoured),but this statement comes off more as false modesty than wishing to distance himself from the atrocities.

McNamara,who participated in the post-bombing debrief,related a story about a bomber captain angry over a lost wingman.  The captain was upset that the bombers had been ordered to fly so low when they could operate from high altitude.  LeMay responded to the captain by stating,  “You lost your wingman,but we destroyed Tokyo.” While McNamara does not take responsibility for this destruction,he states that,had the United States lost WWII to Japan,he and LeMay would have been prosecuted for “acting as war criminals.”  He also raised a question,“What makes it immoral if you lose,but not if you win?”  Unfortunately,he seems to view himself as exempted from needing an answer because most Americans likely viewed the action,as McNamara himself seems to,as a necessary evil.  Of engaging in necessary evil McNamara later states “recognize you will have to engage in evil –but minimize it.”

This unrepentant attitude toward over the firebombing of Tokyo mirrors McNamara’s attitude on Vietnam.  Much of it he simply won’t discuss,though it was the defining moment of his life and his career.  What he does say is largely geared toward blame-avoidance.  On the subject of the use of Agent Orange,Mcnamara states “Let’s look at the law –which chemicals are acceptable in a time of war and which are not?,” which best illustrates McNamara’s devotion to the quantifiable,or the the letter of the law over the overriding spirit of it.  When asked whose responsibility the war was,he simply throws President Johnson under the bus by claiming ultimate responsibility rests with the President,and engages in a “counter-factual”,supposin’ that,had Kennedy lived,the war likely would not have been continued.  He also points out less than 50% of casualties occurred on his watch,though he does not mention that it was also on his watch that the United States’ involvement in Vietnam,for good or ill,was cemented.  Finally,when asked why he did not speak out against the war after being fired by Johnson for difference of opinion,McNamara simply would not engage the subject,“You don’t know how inflammatory my words can appear,” he said,adding “I’d rather be damned if I don’t [than damned if I do].”

In terms of the film as a piece of cinematic work,few documentaries will match this one in visual or oral power.  Of particular note,and meriting particular praise,is the technique of utilizing computer-enhanced photo montages in sequence with music to lend fluidity and near-action to the still media.  No mere licensing of the patented “Ken Burns pan-and-scan,” the camera seemingly moves through some of the images as if zooming in or moving within the photograph,a technique both mildly disconcerting and fascinating to watch.  This process also acts as an interesting foil to the use of archival footage throughout the film.  As mentioned,the Philip Glass soundtrack is a shifting tone of grey-ish atmosphere,a translucent,but not transparent,layer hovering over the film,perpetuating the half-lit murkiness.  It would be quite worthwhile to listen to merely as a composition in its own right.

Rating this film is difficult.  Viewed solely as a film,The Fog of War is an outstanding piece of work.  The skilled splicing of archival footage,contemporary interview with McNamara,still photographs,and the brooding score creates a captivating,powerful film well worth the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary and the many other awards showered upon it.

However,as a piece of self-serving,legacy-attuned propaganda,I was quite disappointed.  When McNamara refuses to discuss his inaction after his firing as Secretary of Defense,and when he adheres to an observation of the letter of the law,rather than the spirit of it,the fog of war begins to swirl into the audience,to creep into the lungs and respiratory tracts,impeding breathing and inhibiting clear judgment.  This is a man portraying himself as a participant on a battlefield,choked with smoke and dust and hung with clouds of blood,while the truth is that his position as Secretary of Defense offered him one of the best vantage points in the world,one which should have allowed him to see down through the fog to the situation on the ground in Vietnam.  If there is a lesson to be learned by McNamara’s use of the fog of war analogy,it is that McNamara himself either lacked the sight to see through the fog,or that his ability to judge the situation based on what he saw was insufficient to the task at hand.  In either case,McNamara failed.  This movie is an attempt to obscure that fact,and to consign it to a foggy battlefield on another continent nearly half a century ago.  By all means,watch this movie.  But when you do,use your eyes to see clearly the riflemen in the trees,concealed by the fog.

1 comment to Good riddance:the death of a war criminal

  • I would have to agree with you there,that in all likely-hood it would craietnly point to members of the Aryan Guard,or if not,atleast members of the far-right. I’m not up to speed on the activities of Neo Nazi’s within Canada,but in a general overview,it would seem they are becoming more and more agressive. Perhaps in hind sight,it may have to do with this Richard Warman,CHRT circus,that has even me (a male that is Liberal to the bone) even wondering what has Canada turned into.As for the police investigating,I doubt they’re doing anything with effort,it’s most likely in a file on someone’s desk. The CPS just can not start hauling people a whim. It would comprimise the case. With that,good luck with your cause my friend!

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