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The Fog of War
by Howard Schumann

Educated in the best Ivy League schools, successful leaders in the business world, they were the best and the brightest, the core of John F. Kennedy's administration. They came to office in 1961 with high hopes that the world would become a better place. When they left, these expectations lay shattered amidst the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. Considered the architect of what came to be known as "McNamara's War," Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson, was one of the brightest, but had the reputation of being aloof and arrogant. This public image, however, may not have been the whole story. In the fascinating Oscar-nominated documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Dr. Death) interviews the now 86-year-old Defense Secretary in an effort to come to terms with what led to the quagmire of Vietnam, and reveals a more complex, even strangely sympathetic man.

The interview, interspersed with archival footage, news broadcasts, and tape-recorded conversations from the period, documents McNamara's personal account of his involvement with American policy from WW II to the 1960s. Culled from 20 hours of tape, the interview is separated into eleven segments corresponding to lessons learned during his life, such as "empathize with your enemy," and "rationality will not save us." The Secretary does not apologize for the war, saying he was only trying to serve an elected President, but is willing to admit his mistakes. He says that he now realizes the Vietnam conflict was considered by the North Vietnamese to be a civil war and that they were fighting for the independence of their country from colonialism, (something opponents of the war had been trying to tell him for over five years). Morris never undercuts McNamara's dignity or pushes him into a corner, yet also does not slide troubling questions under the rug, and there are some questions McNamara does not want to discuss.

Though his reputation is that of a hawk, previously unheard tape-recorded conversations between McNamara and both Presidents reveal that he urged caution and opposed the continued escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1964, we hear Johnson say, "I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing, but you and the President thought otherwise, and I just sat silent." McNamara also discusses his role in World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his accomplishments as President of the Ford Motor Company. In talking about Cuba, he reveals how close the world came to nuclear annihilation, saved only by the offhand suggestion of an underling. McNamara repeats over and over again, demonstrating with his fingers, how close we all came to nuclear war. He talks openly about his involvement in World War II under General Curtis Le May, and how he helped plan the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities, including Tokyo, in which 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed. In a startling admission, he says that if the allies had not won the war, both he and Le May could have been tried as war criminals.

Mr. McNamara has spoken out a bit late to save the lives of 50,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese, but at least he has spoken, and we can learn from his reflections. Though the Secretary does not apologize for the war, saying he was only trying to serve an elected President, to his credit he has looked at the corrosiveness of war and what it does to the human soul, and we are left with the sense of a man who has come a long way. While his lesson that "in order to do good, one may have to do evil" sounds suspiciously like "the end justifies the means," his sentiments are clear that the U.S. should never invade another country without the support of its friends and allies. "We are the strongest nation in the world today," he says, "and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we'd followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." A valuable lesson indeed.

By the late 1960s, the undeclared war in Vietnam had dragged on for four years, despite assurances from our political leaders that we had turned the corner. While massive protest marches brought the issue to the attention of millions, they did little to stop the war. By the early 70s, Richard Nixon was President, the war had escalated to Laos and Cambodia, protesting students were shot dead at Kent State, over 30,000 Americans and countless more Vietnamese were dead, and there was no end in sight. Impatient with non-violence and radicalized by the continually escalating casualty count and the deafness shown by political leaders, more militant groups such as The Weathermen and Black Panthers began to emerge.

The Weathermen (later The Weather Underground), a radical faction of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), waged a small-scale war against the US government during the 1970s that included bombings of the Pentagon and the Capitol buildings, breaking Timothy Leary out of prison, and evading a nationwide FBI manhunt. Nominated for an Academy Award, directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel's compelling documentary, The Weather Underground, candidly explores the rise and fall of the protest group over a six year period, as former members speak about what that drove them to "bring the war home" and landed them on the FBIs ten most wanted list. Though tough questions were not asked, it is nonetheless a balanced and engrossing documentary that puts the last serious student movement in this country into historical perspective without either romanticizing or trivializing it.

Using FBI photographs, news accounts, archival war footage and interviews with Weathermen, SDS leaders, and FBI agents, the documentary explores the limits of protest in a free society and the odds faced by those confronting state and corporate power. Included are scenes of napalm bombing in Vietnam, the murder of black leaders Fred Hampton and George Jackson, and excerpts of talks by President Nixon. The documentary contains interviews with seven of the original Weathermen, all white, middle class, and well educated: Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Brian Flanagan, Naomi Jaffe, Laura Whitehorn and David Gilbert. These were not weekend hippies or armchair activists, but people so committed they cut themselves off from family and friends for nearly a decade.

While the movement began by targeting all (white) Americans, after the explosion of a homemade bomb in Greenwich Village in 1970 killed three of their members, the group decided that no one should die as a result of their direct action, and no one did. In spite of their belief that civil disobedience was the only alternative, the radicalism of the group alienated many of the people they were trying to convert and forced them to go underground, with everyone eventually surrendering to the FBI. Today most are still active in professional capacities in support of these ideals, and still convinced of the evils of the capitalist system and the need for genuine democracy.

While their acts can be understood on the basis that it was a time of worldwide revolution, and by the failure of marches on Washington to stop the escalation of the war, questions as to whether or not their tactics were effective are still being debated. If nothing else, they exposed the FBI's sinister CointelPro program, an attempt to infiltrate and destroy left wing organizations. Though today the goal of a truly just and humane society seems farther away than ever, as director Siegel pointed out referring to The Weather Underground, "It's clear they didn't have the entire answer, but their impulse that the world can be a more progressive, humane place is worth considering. They made huge mistakes but also had an impulse that things needed to change." The impetus for that change is still alive.

In a wealthy Connecticut suburb, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) jumps into a backyard swimming pool, then dries himself off and heads for the nearest martini. Proudly announcing to his neighbor, "This is the day Ned Merrill swims across the county," he tells his friend that he has decided to swim from pool to pool, revisiting friends and acquaintances at each pool on his way to his posh hillside home.

Based on a short story by John Cheever, Frank Perry's 1968 film The Swimmer, is a brilliant and disturbing thriller in which an odyssey of suburban pleasure turns into a journey from hell. At the outset, Ned seems comfortable with his body and with nature. He runs alongside a stallion and races through the trees. On the surface, all is well. When asked about his wife, he repeatedly tells everyone that she is "fine" and that his daughters are "playing tennis," and "love their father." As he begins swimming home via his neighbor's pools, troubling layers begin to emerge beneath his smoothly polished exterior. The neighbors are friendly and there is a good deal of animated chitchat, but Ned's responses seem strangely automated. He is very giving with his compliments, but his constant promises and appointments raise questions about whether he is just putting people off. As he visits his neighbors, we begin to see Ned through the eyes of the people he has ignored or rejected, and feel the hurt that he has caused them in his life. Gradually, his neighbors become increasingly hostile and the small talk takes on an undercurrent of meanness.

He meets a former mistress (Janice Rule) who is tempted to pick up where she left off, but decides that she doesn't want anything more to do with him. There is also the sexy wife of one of his old friends who makes a play, but is quickly turned off. Two chance encounters that at first seem quite innocent take on the feel of a neurotic obsession. One is with a former baby sitter, twenty-year old Julie Ann (Janet Landgard) who claims to have had had a crush on Ned years ago, but is frightened and runs away when he makes advances to her. The other is with a lonesome boy whom he befriends beside an empty pool and invites to his house, but there are dark overtones that mercifully are unexplored.

Clad in only a pair of black swimming trunks, Ned reaches each neighbor's pool one by one: the Grahams, the Lears, the Hallorans, the Gilmartins, the Biswangers. The pool parties he encounters describe an affluent way of life that has been stripped of meaning, foreshadowing later films about the moral decay of suburbia such as Ordinary People and American Beauty. Ned Merrill is the prototype of the successful upper middle class American man: virile, handsome, and charming. His appearance bares his body, but his soul has gone missing. Little by little the layers of deception are pulled away, and what remains is frightening. His is a world apparently built upon prestige and affluence and the importance of appearances. He has no true friends.

Following up on his Oscar-recognized performances in From Here to Eternity, Elmer Gantry and Birdman of Alcatraz, Lancaster is mesmerizing in his portrayal of the slow disintegration of a once proud man. Backed by Marvin Hamlisch's very lush debut film score, the film flirts with melodrama, but is saved by outstanding performances. The film raises many questions and suggests that there may be other interpretations besides a literal one. The out-of-focus photography (done to excess) telling us that Ned is confused creates a surreal atmosphere that hints he may be dreaming or indeed may already be dead. Whatever the interpretation, The Swimmer is an original, a film that brings us right up against the fašades we erect to prevent others from truly seeing us. Bring some towels and warm clothes. This swim will give you one big chill.


©2004 Howard Schumann
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