A Mask of Civilisation

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Review of 'The Fog of War', director Errol Morris

Errol Morris has made a really good documentary based on interviews with Robert McNamara. It is a history lesson for the second half of the 20th century, as well as an insight into the methods and thinking of a member of the ruling class. McNamara did the same job during the Vietnam War that Donald Rumsfeld does today, and was just as hated.

A technocrat with philosophical leanings, he became a trusted altar boy to the profit system. To him every element of every action can be studied and made more efficient - whether this applies to killing humans or producing cars. McNamara first came to prominence in the Second World War. He was central to planning the strategic bombing of Japanese cities. In one air raid alone over Tokyo 100,000 civilians were burnt to death. After the war he was recruited by Fords, becoming president of the company in 1959. A short while later he was summoned to serve the newly elected John F Kennedy as secretary of defence.

The documentary lets its subject dominate the discussion while intercutting footage that shows the real impact of his efficiency programmes. Morris himself was an anti-war protester, so the footage he uses is very effective. Despite McNamara having some doubts over the consequences of the orders he gave, he never questions what he was trying to achieve. He asks the question of whether 100,000 deaths in Tokyo were necessary - then places this figure against one expected for US casualties, anticipated from a direct invasion of the Japanese home islands. It is all cold calculation. He even admits that had the US lost the war he would have been considered a war criminal. During the Cuban missile crisis he became aware that nuclear war was too risky, so he turned to organising conventional warfare but along corporate lines - hence the barbarous policy of attrition practised in South East Asia from which millions died.

Does the man once described as a human IBM show any remorse? Does he regret what he was responsible for in Vietnam? On this question he refuses to be drawn. He does admit the US conceived the war wrongly - but he does not admit it was wrong to fight it.

Maybe the clue to what McNamara really thinks is in what he has done since he quit office in 1967, which is not referred to in the documentary. As head of the World Development Bank (WDB), which he ran like an autocrat from 1968 to 1981, he transformed the organisation. It acquired something that he had described as a 'moral precept' to fight poverty in developing countries and so bring about stability. Sounds great, but the reality of his actions is no different from his previous record. For instance, his policies of lending large amounts for agricultural development in Third World countries had the same impact on the very poor as the enclosure acts in Britain prior to the industrial revolution. The majority of peasant farmers, too poor to get credit, quickly lost their lands to those who could. McNamara's WDB actually increased impoverishment over this period.

Just look at who the WDB saw as preferred borrowers: Chile only received loans after the military coup in 1973; the Romanian dictator Ceausescu had good credit at the WDB, as did General Suharto's Indonesia. The more repressive a regime, the more likely it was to get loans from the bank. This was McNamara's policy, just like Vietnam was. He is recognised as a business genius, but under a mask of civilisation he is an organiser of mass carnage.