“War is cruel. War is cruelty.” General Sherman of Civil War fame spoke those lines, but not as a denouncement of what war was. Rather, that was what Sherman said when the Mayor of Atlanta pleaded to keep his non-militarized city pillaged and burned. Sherman was a willing participant in doing the cruel to ensure that war stayed war.

What is permissible in times of war? What is a war criminal? Why do we see so much war? Those are among the questions which The Fog of War seeks to answer. This book could hardly be more timely in American history considering the rather aggressive adjustment our foreign policy has undergone in the last six years. For good or for bad, the tendencies and impacts this country has needs to be analyzed. Blight provides a good paradigm to do so through the lives of one this countries greatest minds, Robert S. McNamara.

The Fog of War was originally an Oscar-award winning documentary made by Errol Morris. James Blight served as one of the advisors for the film and made it into a book shortly after such great public interest was shown in the movie. Both the documentary and the movie are based around eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara, all of which he revealed in the course of one marathon interview. The film is an incredible feat of cinematic art, a calling-card of what the documentary genre is capable of.

Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense under both JFK and LBJ. This is the time frame in which America became deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, something we did not escape from until 1974 and Gerald Ford, the same man who brought us 68 degrees and a cardigan. Previous to that, he was in charge of statistical control for bombing missions over Japan in World War II and also the president of Ford Motor Company. After being the Secretary of Defense, he went on to the president of the World Bank. McNamara refused to speak on the Vietnam War until the mid-nineties, when he came out with his first book in which he admitted he made mistakes and was fairly critical of the way the war as a whole was handled.

So why should we care about Vietnam? That war was a long time ago. Much of the world we live in now is a different place because of the things which took place during the Vietnam War. We are too far away from it to understand the Cold War ethos of those days, yet we are still too close for history to fully understand it. But the type of struggle we believe ourselves to be in these days is not far from the Cold War, and they war we are bogged down in now is certainly not far from the Vietnam War. The “War on Terror” and the Cold War are both ideological struggles, and both Vietnam and Iraq were plagued by misunderstanding, cultural ignorance and superiority, a great disconnect between the feet on the ground and the eyes in the sky.

We must learn from our best to be better suited to our present. But this book and documentary is not simply some exercise in boring thought or brainwashing. McNamara will not fail to delight, amaze, and shock all who read or watch what he has to say. When I watched the film with my roommates, there were many times where we would have to pause to DVD just so we could absorb some of the statements he had made. In speaking about the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II in which 100,000 civilians died in one night, “If we had lost [World War II], we would have been prosecuted as war criminals for what we did.” On the Cuban Missile Crisis, “We were literally five minutes away from the end of civilization.” On the Vietnam War, “If we would have just stopped and talked to these people, we would have been able to settle things without having to kill millions.” On working for the World Bank, “Castro’s Cuba has half the infant mortality rate of the United States. If you want to protest, go fight in the streets about that.” On nuclear weapons, “There is no learning curve, no time to learn from your mistakes, with nuclear weapons. There is no second time around.”

What justice is, what makes actions right and wrong, when the end justifies the means, what peace is worth to what point, these are the questions McNamara wrestled with in his life. Those are the questions that he answered, that we see illuminated through the life of one of the most controversial governmental figures in America. Whether you are conservative or progressive, no matter what you come into this book thinking about war and peace and justice, you will walk away having learned something, having been forced to think about a different side of things.

Blight delivers a timely covering of important issues America is once again facing. He avoids being preachy while showing through experience the types of decisions one should find best to make. Read this book, watch this film, think about these things. The world stands far too close to the brink of far too many things and every knowledgeable voice is needed.

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