By Thane Peterson Every American adult should see Errol Morris' extraordinary film The Fog of War. Winner of the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary, it's basically a long meditation on war by Robert McNamara -- a man uniquely qualified to provide perspective on the subject. Now 87, McNamara had just become president of Ford Motor when a newly elected President John Kennedy recruited him as Defense Secretary in 1961. He was at Kennedy's side during the Cuban Missile Crisis and continued as head of the Pentagon during President Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War.
As a young efficiency expert, McNamara also was deeply involved in military buildup during World War II and took part in the decision to firebomb Tokyo and other Japanese cities near the end of the war, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. He contends that the U.S. and Soviet Union just barely avoided nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara speaks candidly in Morris' film of his own doubts about the Vietnam War and the sense of duty that kept him from speaking out against it after Johnson eased him out as Defense Secretary in 1968.
These days, with the exception of one interview in the Toronto Globe & Mail ("It's Just Wrong What We're Doing"), McNamara has refused to criticize the war in Iraq. In that interview, he voiced his worries that American leaders are repeating many of the mistakes made in Vietnam. McNamara didn't respond to my request for an interview.
Morris, 56, is an interesting character in his own right. He's a committed independent filmmaker who also has a lucrative parallel career as a highly successful maker of TV ads for such products as Miller beer and Apple (AAPL) computers (where CEO Steve Jobs himself brought in Morris in to do ads). Morris demonstrated against the Vietnam War during the late 1960s while a student at the University of Wisconsin, yet he refuses to make easy judgements about McNamara. In fact, much to his surprise, Morris says he came away liking and admiring McNamara.
I recently caught up with Morris by phone at his production company's headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:
Q: You decided to make a movie about Robert McNamara only after interviewing him at length. What made you decide to go ahead?
A: McNamara's accounts surprised me. After all, we're talking about a control freak, and his stories are about how and why things slipped out of control. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we're often told that Kennedy saved the world -- that Kennedy figured out a way to avert war and diffuse the tensions caused by this crisis. McNamara gives us a very different story.
His story is about how we almost blundered into World War III. In a very powerful moment in the film, in my view, McNamara says we came this close to nuclear war -- and he holds his fingers very close together. The story itself is instructive. [U.S. leaders] got faulty information from the CIA. The CIA told them that the nuclear warheads had not yet been delivered to Cuba -- that the missiles had been delivered but they were not armed [with warheads]. This turned out to be false.
[McNamara] learned this 30 years later at a conference in Havana [at which he spoke with Cuban leader Fidel Castro]. Those missiles were armed and ready to go. If Curtis LeMay and many other [American] generals had gotten their way, we would have bombed and invaded Cuba. And in all likelihood the Soviets would have retaliated using nuclear weapons.
Q: You said in your Academy Award acceptance speech that you "fear we're going down the rabbit hole" in Iraq as we did in Vietnam. What did you mean by that?
A: We lost all sense of reality [in Vietnam]. We were so convinced in the case of Vietnam that we were fighting international communism that we failed to realize that this was not a conflict controlled by the Chinese or the Russians. It was a war of independence.
"War should be at the end of a list of options, not at the beginning"
Q: Please say a bit more.
A: In the case of Vietnam, it was our lack of awareness of [Vietnamese] history -- you might even say an obliviousness to the details of their history, their society. And we essentially refused to negotiate with them. My way of thinking is that war is something you resort to after you have failed with negotiations -- not in advance of negotiations.
I don't want to say that all conflict is uncalled for. But war should be at the end of a list of options, not at the beginning. And here in 2003-04, we seem to be thinking the same way we thought 40 years ago. Everything has been polarized into good and evil -- we're good, the terrorists are bad, negotiations are ruled out, many, many of our allies are ignored, the U.N. is weakened. And I'd say first and foremost that war [has become] not a last resort but a first resort.
Q: Why isn't McNamara speaking out more about the war in Iraq?
A: It's a great puzzle. But he comes from a different generation. I tell myself that his generation, which lived through the Depression and that won World War II, has a very different set of ideas. McNamara constantly reminds me, Kennedy was elected, Johnson was elected, and he was not. He served at the pleasure of the Presidents who appointed him. He had no independent voice.
Q: That's a very old-fashioned attitude.
A: McNamara takes very seriously the constitutional role that he played. I don't buy it. I have to tell you that to me issues of truth and importance to the American people trump issues of loyalty to the President and the executive branch. But it's very much part of his story and very much part of the film.
One of the most distressing things I've seen in recent years is Colin Powell testifying at the U.N. [I was asking myself] what in God's name is going on? What is going through his head? Does he believe what he's saying?
"He's a complex man, and my view of him is complex -- probably schizophrenic"
Q: The loyal soldier?
A: The loyal soldier. Is he falling on his sword for his President? What is his position on all of this? Has he somehow been able to convince himself that it's right? It brings back that same story of McNamara telling Kennedy to get out [of Vietnam] and then watching McNamara under another President [Johnson] facilitating [the] war.
Q: Yes, but you also say you admire McNamara, so your view of him must be pretty complex.
A: It is. He's a complex man, and my view of him is complex -- probably schizophrenic.
Q: What is it you admire about him?
A: I admire his intelligence, his willingness to go back over history and try to figure out what went wrong.
Q: In your commercial work, I assume you have worked with a lot of business executives. It struck me in watching the movie that McNamara was sort of a prototypical MBA. Like many CEOs today, he was confident that he could deal with any situation. But one of the problems in Vietnam was that he was misapplying business principles to the war. Do you see similarities between his attitude and the attitude of executives you deal with in your commercial work?
A: [sighs] I don't think so.
Q: I didn't phrase that question very well.
A: No, you put it very well. The question, if I understand it, is: "Is there an MBA way of thinking, an MBA hubris that makes one think that by just mastering a set of management techniques one can handle anything -- even things one has no familiarity with and or particular expertise in dealing with?" We have an MBA President as we speak, educated at the same school that Robert McNamara went to, the Harvard Business School.
I know that there's a very popular story of McNamara believing he could do things he couldn't do. But I don't know if that was the real downfall in Vietnam. I'm loath to say, "Ah ha-- if only we didn't have the Harvard Business School...the world would be a better place."
Q: I was thinking of the extension of efficiency theory to things like using body counts in Vietnam as...
A: ...a measure of success. Yes, there is an element of statistics and management techniques taking over. But I think it's a deeper issue. That's why I used that term -- the rabbit hole. It's self-deception, of being able to convince ourselves about anything, about entering a hall of mirrors of our own devising, and of not only failing to see the forest for the trees, but failing to see the trees as well. Of being in some kind of strange wonderland where we lose touch with reality altogether.
And I don't believe that that's something just true of Harvard MBAs or MBAs in general. It's part of the human condition, sadly enough. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online