Errol Morris, McNamara Documentarian: "There Are No Simple Answers"
The death of Robert McNamara at the age of 93 has re-ignited a debate about the legacy of the man and the event with which he is most often associated: the Vietnam War. The former Defense Secretary is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating political figures never to hold elected office, owing to the influential posts he held in the armed forces, Ford Motor Company, two presidential cabinets, and ultimately, The World Bank.
Historians largely vilify McNamara, arguing that no singular figure -- save President Lyndon Johnson himself -- was more responsible for the escalation of a senseless war. But it was hard not to feel, in his later years, a sense of sorrow for the man as he and the country came to terms with those events.
Few understood the weight on McNamara's shoulders better than Errol Morris. The documentary filmmaker had unprecedented access to the controversial figure for the production of the award-winning "Fog of War." His work provided a unique and personal window into how McNamara viewed his role in the nation's history. Certainly, it challenged earlier critics to reevaluate their interpretations of the man and his legacy.
A day after McNamara's death, Morris spoke by telephone with the Huffington Post. His answers, and our questions, have been edited slightly for length.
HUFFINGTON POST: In the course of producing the Fog of War what did you learn about Robert McNamara? And how did he see his place in history?
MORRIS: There are no simple answers to those questions. He is an extraordinarily complex figure and will probably remain as such... It is an amazing career and an amazingly complex career I might add. I don't share this view that McNamara is this clearly evil man. I think that he is extraordinarily complex and that may be a result as well of the extraordinarily complex history that he was part of. Nothing has a simple answer. Maybe nothing ever does. It's very easy to condemn him for these policies but harder to understand what his role was in these policies.
By the end of his life, McNamara clearly felt a sense of contrition. But did he feel as if he was responsible for what happened in Vietnam or did he think of himself as a victim of history, engulfed by the events that surrounded him?
I think that it is part of who we are, in general, that we would prefer to see ourselves as victims rather than as villains. Having said that, dealing with McNamara was dealing with a person who agonized about his past.
I was always puzzled by people who would come away from the movie and say, "Well is he sorry?" There are two answers: One, I came to realize I was not looking for an apology. It's not as though you apologize for the deaths of two-and-a-half to three million people. The Vietnam War was a disaster, a human disaster. But there is no saying I am sorry. In fact, the whole idea is, if anything, a kind of obscenity.
Part of talking to him was the realization that nothing can really erase that history... I had a strong feeling of tragedy in this sense, that here is a man who really believed that rationality could ultimately solve the problems of the world, and there's a rueful admission in our conversations that perhaps rationality is not enough and if it's not enough what else is there? There's the question.
How did he handle that realization and why didn't it have a greater effect on his prosecution of the war?
We did another 20 hours of interviews on the phone, which haven't been published and are pretty amazing. There were endless questions.... And of course the question, which perhaps can never be adequately answered, of why didn't he speak out?
I believe that McNamara had lost faith in the war fairly early on. And by '66, I think he was having increasing trouble. But here you have a guy who prizes loyalty above almost everything. Maybe above everything. I mean the people who say to me, well, McNamara is a guy who is devoid of ethical and moral sensibility, he was a technocrat, he was a number cruncher, and so on and so forth, well I think that's just wrong, unless he was a radically different man in the 1960s than the man that I met. He was a man who constantly thought about ethical and moral questions.
How difficult was it to make the Fog of War and, in particular, to get McNamara to talk about these profoundly difficult moments of this past?
It was hard. It was endless cajoling. McNamara, and I think this is something of an understatement, is a volatile character. Unpredictable in the sense that he felt that at anytime during the interview he could just get up and walk away, with very little assurance that he would continue at any time. The first two days of interviews, he had promised me only an hour and gave me something closer to five or six hours. He didn't promise to continue. Rather, he gave me a homework assignment and asked me to edit those first two days. If he liked it he'd go on, if not he would stop. So I always felt like I as being given an exam of some sort.
You showed him your first edits?
Absolutely. He wouldn't have continued talking to me if I hadn't done it.
Did he like the film?
He told a number of people that he liked the film very much. He'd never tell me that. That's not his style. He gave me often a very hard time but the fact that he was wiling to tell a lot of people close to him how much he admired the movie means a lot to me.
Did you talk to him about the war in Iraq? Did he see parallels to Vietnam?
I did actually quite a bit [talk to him about Iraq].
I share one thing with McNamara's critics. As a friend of mine said to me, I can forgive him for Vietnam. I can forgive him for this. I can forgive him for that. But I can never forgive him for not speaking up about the war in the years following his resignation as defense secretary. I kind of agree that was his most significant failing.
At the time I interviewed him, Iraq was just on the horizon. He felt very strongly that it was a misguided war, that if you look at lessons that he takes from Vietnam, the lessons that apply to Iraq as well, a feeling of horror and despair, like most of us many of us felt in the last administration of a foreign policy gone radically off course. So, why didn't he speak out more against the Iraq war? I don't know. I urged him to. I personally urged him to. I said his voice was very important. He did it in Canada. This is so weird. One of the weird things about the man -- he did it in Canada but he wouldn't do it in the US.
Why would he take the same private approach to his objections with Iraq that he did with Vietnam?
I once explained it to somebody by saying I think he still believes that he is secretary of defense. He's still serving the president even though the presidents he served are long gone. There is still that deference to the head of government. I mean he's said to me many times -- and you can look at this as an excuse, as an equivocation, but in fact there is some truth to it -- that he wasn't elected. Kennedy and Johnson were elected. He served at their pleasure. He was an adviser to the president of the United States, but ultimately those decisions rested with the president.