The film won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was non-competitively screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
Using archival footage, United States Cabinet conversation recordings, and an interview of the then eighty-five-year-old Robert McNamara, The Fog of War depicts his life, from his birth during the First World War remembering the time American troops returned from Europe, to working as a World War II Whiz Kid military officer, to being the Ford Motor Company's president, to serving as Secretary of Defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (including his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War).
In a 2004 appearance at U.C. Berkeley, Errol Morris said his inspiration for the documentary derived from McNamara's book (with James G. Blight), Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (2001). Morris originally approached McNamara for an interview for an hour-long television special. That was extended multiple times and Morris decided to make a feature film. Morris interviewed McNamara for some twenty hours; the two-hour documentary comprises eleven lessons from In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). He posits, discourses upon, and propounds the lessons in the interview that is The Fog of War. Moreover, at the U.C. Berkeley event, McNamara disagreed with Morris's interpretations in The Fog of War, yet, on completion, McNamara supplemented the original eleven lessons with an additional ten lessons; they are in The Fog of War DVD.
When asked to apply the eleven lessons from In Retrospect to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, McNamara refused, arguing that ex-secretaries of defense must not comment upon the incumbent defense secretary's policies. He suggested other people could apply the eleven lessons to the war in Iraq, but that he would not, noting that the lessons are about war in general, not a specific war.
The film focuses primarily on the interviews of former Secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who was interviewed for about 20 hours by the director of the documentary, Errol Morris, through a special device called the "Interrotron" which projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other. Use of this device is intended to convey actual interaction with each other and direct eye contact with the viewer.
In the interviews, McNamara talks about aspects of international security and how and by what means it can be influenced by circumstances. The documentary explores recent events in American history and also focuses on McNamara's life and how he rose from a humble American family to be a politician who achieved enormous power and influence. McNamara worked with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and with general Curtis LeMay, and had direct access to many governmental documents. His opinions, personal experiences and lessons learned while serving as a Secretary of Defense can provide the audience with an enlightening philosophy and outlook on American politics.
The documentary covers important events such as World War II, Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and many others that McNamara himself witnessed.
McNamara is regarded as the "architect" of the Vietnam war; a war that cost an enormous number of lives against a foe whose resolve he seriously underestimated. McNamara's interview, along with archival footage, offers a close look at international security and the international relations of the US, and an insight into why certain conflicts occur and the lessons that can be learned from these conflicts.
Reviews for the film were very positive. The film received an overall score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, thus obtaining a "Certified Fresh" rating. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Although McNamara is photographed through the Interrotron, the movie is far from offering only a talking head. Morris is uncanny in his ability to bring life to the abstract, and here he uses graphics, charts, moving titles and visual effects in counterpoint to what McNamara is saying."
These lessons were chosen by Morris, not Robert McNamara himself
Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy.
McNamara states "Empathize with your enemy" several times throughout the documentary. McNamara relates this lesson to the Cuban Missile Crisis when he and Kennedy were trying to keep the United States out of war but General Curtis LeMay wanted to invade Cuba. Kennedy discovered LeMay's obsession with nuclear weapons when focusing on the Laotian problem in 1961. Kennedy received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis. McNamara refers to them as the “hard message” and the “soft message”. McNamara differentiated the two messages because the first message was informal, whereas the second message was formal and was broadcast around the world. McNamara stated the first message sounded like it came from "A drunk man or one under a lot of stress." The first message, “soft message”, stated if the United States guaranteed to not invade Cuba then Cuba would take the missiles out. The “hard message” stated “if you [United States] attack we're [Cuba] prepared to confront you with masses of military power." Llewellyn Thompson, former US ambassador to Moscow, urged Kennedy to respond to the soft message. Knowing Khrushchev personally, Thompson believed that Khrushchev just wanted to be able to tell Cuba he stopped an invasion from the U.S. Although Kennedy did not agree with Thompson at first, he later did.
Lesson #2: Rationality alone will not save us.
In the documentary, McNamara emphasized it was luck that prevented nuclear war. Rational individuals such as: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro, came close to creating national destruction. McNamara states that the possibility of nuclear destruction still exists today.
Lesson #3: There’s something beyond one’s self.
This lesson was used to describe McNamara’s private life. McNamara states “there’s something beyond one’s self and a responsibility to society.” During this time in the documentary McNamara discussed when he started to court his wife, Margaret Craig, and had a child. Then the war came. McNamara was then promoted to the youngest assistant professor at Harvard.
Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency.
In this example, McNamara was brought back from the 8th air force and assigned to the first B-29, 58th Bomb Wing flying planes. It was thought the B-29s could destroy targets much more efficiently and effectively. McNamara was in charge of analyzing bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient.
Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
In this example, McNamara talks about the proportions of cities destroyed in Japan by the U.S. McNamara compares destroyed cities of Japan to cities in the United States before the dropping of the nuclear bomb. Tokyo, roughly the size of New York, 51% destroyed; Toyama, the size of Chattanooga, 99% destroyed; Nagoya, the size of Los Angeles, 40% destroyed; Osaka, the size of Chicago, 35% destroyed. McNamara compares the proportionality of the war on Japan to being immoral.
Lesson #6: Get the data.
McNamara worked at Ford in an executive position where he conducted studies on buyer demographics to accident reports to make cars safer. McNamara was later promoted to president of Ford, being the first person not a family member to hold the position. Although, he quit 5 months later because of a position offered to him by John F. Kennedy. Kennedy offered McNamara a position as the Secretary of Treasury where he declined and later accepted the position as the Secretary of Defense.
Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
McNamara relates lesson 7 to the Tonkin Gulf incident. “We see what we want to believe."
Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.
McNamara believed even though the United States is the strongest nation in the world, we should never use that power unilaterally. “if we can’t persuade nations with comparably values of the merit of our cause we better reexamine our reasoning.”
Lesson #9: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.
“Recognize at times we have to engage in evil, but minimize it."
Lesson #10: Never say never.
McNamara talks about how he believes the responsibility for the Vietnam War is on the president and if JFK had lived, the situation wouldn’t have been as bad.
Lesson #11: You can’t change human nature.
McNamara talks about the "fog of war" by comparing it to the human mind and how it cannot fully comprehend it all.
These topics were selected by McNamara to supplement the documentary; they are in the DVD's special features.
- The human race will not eliminate war in this century, but we can reduce the brutality of war—the level of killing—by adhering to the principles of a "Just War," in particular to the principle of "proportionality."
- The indefinite combinations of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.
- We [the U.S.A.] are the most powerful nation in the world—economically, politically, and militarily—and we are likely to remain so for decades ahead. But we are not omniscient. If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of the proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.
- Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign policy and defense policy, but surely we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of U.S. foreign policy and, indeed, of foreign policy across the globe: the avoidance, in this century, of the carnage—160 million dead—caused by conflict in the 20th century.
- We, the richest nation in the world, have failed in our responsibility to our own poor and to the disadvantaged across the world to help them advance their welfare in the most fundamental terms of nutrition, literacy, health and employment.
- Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course, they have responsibilities to stockholders, but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers and to society as a whole.
- President Kennedy believed a primary responsibility of a president—indeed the primary responsibility of a president—is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.
- War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations, and economic sanctions are rarely effective. Therefore, we should build a system of jurisprudence based on the International Court—that the U.S. has refused to support—which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.
- If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy—I don't mean "sympathy," but rather "understanding"—to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.
- One of the greatest dangers we face today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction as a result of the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Regime. We in the U.S. are contributing to that breakdown.
From Robert McNamara's 1995 book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam".
- We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.
- We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
- We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
- Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.
- We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
- We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.
- After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.
- We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people's or country's best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.
- We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
- We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.
- Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues.
These are slightly shortened versions of the text from page 321 to page 323 of his book.
Sony Pictures Classics allowed proceeds from limited screenings of The Fog of War to benefit Clear Path International's work with victims of war in Vietnam.