The legacy of Robert McNamara

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Audio Transcript:

Anchor Lisa Mullins speak with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris about the life of Robert McNamara. Morris made the Academy-award winning documentary ?The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.?

LISA MULLINS: Errol Morris directed a documentary film about Robert McNamara. The Fog of War came out shortly after the war in Iraq began. The film consisted primarily of interviews with McNamara. Morris says he and the former defense secretary were not an obvious pairing.

ERROL MORRIS: Like many people who grew up or came of age during the 60's, I most certainly was not a friend of Robert McNamaras. He was an anti-war demonstrator, at both University of Wisconsin and at Princeton. Although it's a little bit after the time that he was Secretary of Defense. But certainly, Robert McNamara was the face of the Vietnam War. Rightly or wrongly, when we think about that war, we think about him. And, making the film, a surprise, because I came to like him. My feelings about the war, I should add, really haven't changed over the years. I feel as strongly about it as I did 40 years ago. But my feelings about McNamara, the man, certainly changed.

LISA MULLINS: Was it what he said, how he conducted himself?

ERROL MORRIS: I often was asked, this about the film, did he ever show genuine remorse for what he had done? Had he ever apologized? I think that the entire film itself is an expression of remorse, and much of his activities in the last part of his life was his unending attempt to deal, to grapple with his past, to come to terms with it. And I don't believe he ever did. Maybe, that kind of thing, given the enormity of the issues involved could never really happen. I do truly believe that there was something noble about his attempt, even if it was ultimately a failure, to try to come to an understanding of what had happened, and the role that he had played in the escalation of the war, in the 60's.

LISA MULLINS: The role that he played, that he saw himself playing, was quite different from the way his critics saw him. How would you describe Mr. McNamara's view of his own role in Vietnam?

ERROL MORRIS: One of the ongoing controversies is whether it was McNamara who was the hawk, and Lyndon Johnson the dove. Whether it was McNamara who coerced the President into escalating the conflict. I truly believe on the basis of much evidence that has come out in the last 10, 15 years, that it was much closer to the opposite. That it was not McNamara lying to the President of the United States, it was McNamara serving that President.

LISA MULLINS: Meaning that McNamara did not hold all the cards, but his policy was followed.

ERROL MORRIS: If there is a tragedy in his story, it's the tragedy of a man torn between following the two Presidents he served, and grappling with his own feelings of right and wrong. I myself do not share that view of McNamara that he was a technocrat devoid of human feeling, devoid of moral concern. I just simply do not believe that was true. It's very easy for us to divide the world into good and evil, much, much harder to look at people, the reasons that they had for what they did, their own attempts to grapple with their history. I find McNamara, I still find him, an unendingly complex and interesting figure.

LISA MULLINS: The subtitle of your movie, The Fog of War, is 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Can you summarize one or two of the lessons that perhaps you learned, and that you'd like us to take away?

ERROL MORRIS: Perhaps it's an ambivalent lesson for me. Can we really expect to learn from the past? Well, we can't, unless we make that effort. One of the strange, perhaps the strangest thing for me in making this movie, was making it at a time when the United States was about to go to war. And, here are these 11 lessons. And they're as relevant to that conflict as they were to Vietnam. The grotesque thing was that we seem to be repeating all of the errors of the past, all over again. Maybe this is the cynical part of me, but I started re-phrasing famous Santayana quote, those who are unfamiliar with the past are condemned to repeat it. My version was, those who are unfamiliar with the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.

LISA MULLINS: Errol Morris' documentaries include The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. He spoke with us from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.