We are offered the visual images of two men who represent the best and the brightest that
In McNamara, we have a man who, without knowing it, is a leading actor in the death throes of American Reason, a death played out during the long, inevitable catastrophe in
McNamara and Kurtz both start out by fighting to defend the reality and efficacy – and hence the MORALITY – of
We have these two men who, like Virgil in Hades, take us on two very different tours of the death of American Reason. How do the moviemakers present them to us?
McNamara is given to us as “an IBM machine with legs.” He combines a self-assured egotism with a cold, internally consistent logic. Serving under General Curtis Lemay in WWII, McNamara absorbed
Now, McNamara was no fool. He understood the statistics and he could crunch the numbers better than anyone (often in his head). He knew where the American project in
Unlike McNamara, Kurtz understands himself as what Heidegger would have called a “thrown” man, thrown into the middle of the Horror, where he realizes that Reason cannot help him. Thrown back on himself, in the midst of unreason, Kurtz does the only thing left to do. He pushes through. He pushes BEYOND, into madness, and into authenticity. Kurtz’s madness cannot be understood as a mere “backlash” against Reason. To the contrary. In a war that could never be WON but from which it was impossible to WALK AWAY, perhaps Kurtz’s decision was quite rational. Perhaps he is as much an Enlightenment man as McNamara. Perhaps his response, his DECISION, was, in those circumstances, COMPLETELY rational.
Kurtz, in his situation, offers no alibis. As the insane combat photographer tells us, “He’s a great man. He’s fighting the war.” That simple: he is fighting the war. He is killing and killing and killing, “pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army,” without alibis or aspirations and most importantly, WITHOUT JUDGMENT. Because, as Kurtz emphasizes, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”
“The Fog of War” is structured around what are called “Lessons from the life of Robert McNamara.” These are lessons that McNamara claims to have learned from his long and eventful life, especially lessons regarding the conduct of war in general and the war in
Lesson: empathize with your enemy. McNamara had no real understanding of his enemy, and was constantly baffled by their irrational refusal to throw down their weapons and surrender. He tells us, significantly, “we empathized with the
Lesson: rationality will not save us. An important lesson, to be sure, but if he knew this then why did McNamara continue to apply instrumental reason to the problem of Indochina long after most sane observers realized that the adventure in Indochina was OVER? The lack of comprehension in McNamara’s voice on-camera is telling. Kurtz understands the actual truth of this lesson, as he describes the men who cut off all those arms as men who were able to unleash their primordial instinct to kill and keep on killing, but WITHOUT JUDGMENT. In a world were Reason has no place, judgment can NEVER have a place.
Lesson: maximize efficiency. McNamara was able to apply this lesson indiscriminately in any context, from burning Tokyo to the ground to turning around the Ford Motor Company to attempting to hammer the Vietnamese into submission. With no hint of shame, and even a bit of pride in his voice, McNamara describes how “in one night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese in a bombing run on
Kurtz’s efficiency is of a simpler and more intimate kind. His efficient killing is something that takes place on the ground, surrounded by blood, but he will do it anyway. He tells us that “we must kill them, we must exterminate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army.” His efficiency is more intimate because it is something one must do while LOOKING AT the people that one kills, informed by the realization that “in a war there are many moments for ruthless action - what is often called ruthless - what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”
One final lesson, possibly the most ironic of the many “lessons from the life of Robert McNamara”: in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. McNamara sanctimoniously qualifies this lesson, saying, “you may have to engage in evil, but you MUST minimize it.” He repeats several times, like a desperate prayer, the claim that “we were trying to save our nation.” He lets us know that this was “a difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in.” Please note that he most definitely includes himself in the ranks of those “sensitive human beings.” Kurtz doesn’t bother to slip a discreet tissue of lies over the evil that he is and that he does, he invites it in and claims it as a comrade. “It is impossible to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what ‘horror’ is. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If not then that are enemies to be feared, truly enemies.” For this pure, unequivocal truth-telling, the generals declared Kurtz insane and then sent men to kill him as Kurtz waited, squatting in the jungle and broadcasting his truth over short-wave radio out of Cambodia. In his last broadcast, his last duty, his last attempt at honorable amends for the consequences of his own madness, seconds before he freely embraces his death, Kurtz gives us this: “We train our young men to drop FIRE on people, but we won’t allow them to write the word FUCK on their airplanes, because it’s OBSCENE!” McNamara would see no contradiction here. For Kurtz, the contradiction is enough to drive him mad.
In the elegiac last minutes of “The Fog of War,” the interlocutor asks McNamara, “After you left, why didn’t you speak out against the war?” McNamara evades the question, but finally responds, “These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You have no idea how inflammatory my words can appear.” Asked if he feels any responsibility, any guilt, he states, “I don’t want to go any farther with this. It just adds more controversy. Anything I can possibly say will require too many qualifications.” The interlocutor offers McNamara an easy way out, asking: “Do you think it was a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” McNamara thinks about this and finally agrees: “Yeah. And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.” McNamara, at the end of his life, embraces this ultimate act of mauvais fois. The technocrat is invalidated by his refusal to accept that he acted FREELY. And his own cowardly conscience rots his soul from the inside out as his time grows short. Kurtz is worth quoting again, very much apropos of McNamara: “It is judgment that betrays us.”
Kurtz, on the other hand, pushing out far beyond McNamara’s timid, lying morality into the very heart of The Horror, finally reaches a place where he can embrace his absolute freedom, “the only real freedom, freedom from the opinions of others, free even from our own opinions of ourselves.” And it is this freedom that drives him insane.
The seemingly opposite fates of Kurtz and McNamara reveal the ultimate moral failure of American Reason, of the idea that one can go somewhere and kill someone, and justify it with the alibi that one is doing one’s pure moral duty as revealed by the application of clean, unsoiled rationality.