The Fog of War

The Fog of War quotes

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Robert McNamara


I formed the hypothesis that each of us could have achieved our objectives without the terrible loss of life. And I wanted to test that by going to Vietnam. McNamara, on his 1995 meeting in Vietnam with the former Foreign Minister of Vietnam


Norman Morrison was a Quaker. He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing. He came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline. Burned himself to death below my office. He held a child in his arms, his daughter. Passersby shouted, "Save the child!" He threw the child out of his arms, and the child lived and is alive today. His wife issued a very moving statement: 'Human beings must stop killing other human beings.' And that's a belief that I shared. I shared it then and I believe it even more strongly today. How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.

We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don't know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There's a wonderful phrase: 'the fog of war.' What "the fog of war" means is: war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 offensive strategic nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are on a 15 minute alert to be lauched at the decision of *one* human being?

Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.

I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits. There's a quote from T.S. Eliot that I just love:
We shall not cease from exploring
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time. Now that's in a sense where I'm beginning to be.

McNamara: 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.
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.

Kennedy: The advantage to taking them out is?
McNamara: We can say to the Congress and people that we do have a plan for reducing the exposure of U.S. combat personnel.
Kennedy: My only reservation about it is if the war doesn't continue to go well, it will look like we were overly optimistic.
McNamara: We need a way to get out of Vietnam, and this is a way of doing it.
[This conversation was taped on October 2, 1963. This tape, together with a series of conversations between McNamara and President Johnson together depict McNamara as being less pro-war than he is often charactarized as being.]

Johnson: I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the President thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.
McNamara: The problem is...
Johnson: Then come the questions: how in the hell does McNamara think, when he's losing a war, he can pull men out of there?
[This conversation was taped by President Johnson on February 25, 1964.]

McNamara: It was just confusion, and events afterwards showed that our judgment that we'd been attacked that day was wrong. It didn't happen. And the judgment that we'd been attacked on August 2nd was right. We had been, although that was disputed at the time. So we were right once and wrong once. Ultimately, President Johnson authorized bombing in response to what he thought had been the second attack; it hadn't occurred but that's irrelevant to the point I'm making here. He authorized the attack on the assumption it had occurred, and his belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication they would not stop short of winning. We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs. We see incorrectly or we see only half of the story at times.
Morris: We see what we want to believe.
McNamara: You're absolutely right. Belief and seeing, they're both often wrong.

Morris: When you talk about the responsibility for something like the Vietnam War, whose responsibility is it?
McNamara: It's the president's responsibility. I don't want to fail to recognize the tremendous contribution I think Johnson made to the country. I don't want to put the responsibility for Vietnam on his shoulders alone, but I do -- I am inclined to believe that if Kennedy had lived, he would have made a difference. I don't think we would have had 500,000 men there.

On his way out of the studio, Errol Morris remarked that last August in Waco, Texas (where he was shooting a Nike commercial), he looked up in the airport and saw Karl Rove standing in front of him. Morris introduced himself as the film-maker of "The Fog of War." With something more than cordiality, Rove responded: "That's one of my favorite movies. I recommend it to everybody I know." Christopher Lydon

Passion: Truth, with Errol Morris.

My wife, Julia Sheehan, sees McNamara as 'the flying Dutchman,' destined to travel the earth looking for redemption, absolution, whatever. Many political writers have been less kind. They see his trip to Vietnam, to Hanoi, as an attempt to justify a war that can never be justified. And they see his trips to Havana and to Moscow as facile attempts to rewrite history. I see it differently. There is something, for me, deeply moving and interesting about McNamara's attempt to figure out what happened, who he is and what he's done. Unusual among public figures, he has embarked on an historical investigation of himself. But doesn't he know what he's done? Call it the Cartesian error: the belief that we have privileged access to our own minds, that we somehow know what we're thinking or what we were thinking. Can't I just look 'upstairs' and summarize what I find up there? I don't think so. Errol Morris

Interview with American Amnesia.