It is hardly a surprise that “The Fog of War” won the Oscar for documentaries this year. As a film on the life of the former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, “The Fog of War” succeeds brilliantly. It conveys the distinctive complexity of this fascinating man who occupied such a prominent place in the American political and moral imagination during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. And the documentary presentation of this material, centered on issues of nuclear war and Vietnam, makes us think deeply about the troublesome interplay between war and political leadership, an issue that has again assumed a tragic salience since 9/11. “Fog of War” limits its consideration to McNamara’s reflections on and experience of war, and ignores altogether the thirteen years that he spent as president of the World Bank, which are to me as revealing as the seven years that he spent at the Pentagon. Although this exclusion makes the film fall short as a biographical statement, there are artistic and dramatic gains achieved by limiting the focus to war, and its complexities.

The technique of the film maker, Errol Morris, is quite remarkable, managing to command our attention for almost two hours despite McNamara delivering what is essentially a monologue. Of course, some of the credit belongs to McNamara’s captivating words and delivery, and some to the editorial surgery that reduced some twenty hours of film to what we watch in the theater. Also, helpful in breaking the potential monotony of listening to a single voice are McNamara’s eleven lessons that are flashed on the screen at intervals giving us a sense of narrative structure. But what is most riveting, I think, is the cinematography that weaves a coherent fabric of a film consisting of illuminating archival footage, cascading images associated with McNamara’s words and deeds, and various bits of recorded conversations between McNamara and his superiors in the White House. Philip Glass’s edgy, rhythmically repetitive, music wonderfully complements the visual presentation, reinforcing the themes of death and destruction, as well as the contradictory pulls that make this singular individual both fascinating and ultimately elusive. It is never becomes clear whether this great man is genuinely trying to impart the wisdom gained from his deep immersion in the power games of the 20th century or whether he is elaborately engaged in masking a rather pathetic appeal for absolution from the gods of public assessment. Most probably, it is both.

The title “The Fog of War” is a phrase taken from the Karl von Clausewitz, the early 19th century German theorist of war, and used to explain the inability of a military commander to grasp the full realities of a battlefield, given its complexity. It bears so centrally on the McNamara enigma because it is exculpatory in effect, suggesting that the mistakes of war are due to its complexity, rather than the incompetence or depravity of the leaders. What is misleading here is that Clausewitz was explaining why tactical errors are made in war, while McNamara is indirectly excusing moral shortcomings, including those that have been criminalized by international law. Technology has lifted much of the fog that existed in Clausewitz’s day, but the process of war continues to be enshrouded in the far thicker fog of personal ambition and national pride. To confuse the one with other, as McNamara does throughout the film is deeply self-serving, and in the end, quite discrediting.

The substance of the eleven lessons is as revealing about McNamara’s frailties as it is about learning from the mistakes of past wars. For instance, Lesson #1: “empathize with your enemy” is used to vindicate the flexibility of the Kennedy leadership in the Cuban Missile Crisis in helping to extricate Khrushchev and the Soviets from the crisis without producing a nuclear war. Later on, somewhat inconsistently, McNamara becomes quite animated when he acknowledges that it was “pure luck” that saved us in this country and the world from a nuclear war, discovering after the fact how ready each side was to engage in catastrophic behavior to avoid backing down in the crisis. One might have expected at this point some expression of concern for the suffering inflicted by American military tactics, especially the deliberate reliance on terror bombing in World War II, but instead such issues surface, of all places, in relation to Lesson #4: “Maximize efficiency.”

A disturbing motif throughout the film is the recurrent reference to General Curtis LeMay, a leading air force general during both World War II and the early phases of the cold war, who epitomizes the pure logic of warfare carried on without regard to the limits of law or morality, but dedicated single mindedly to victory and the total destruction of the enemy. McNamara’s attitudes toward LeMay are revealing, combining undisgusied admiration for his “efficiency” and dedication to duty, with an effort to contrast McNamara’s contrasting active moral indignation about killing people with Lemay’s indifference. It was LeMay who, for the sake of efficiency in the latter stages of World II, proposed and engaged in the fire bombing of 67 Japanese cities causing hundreds of thousands of deaths of women and children. At a telling moment in the film LeMay acknowledges that if the Allies had lost the war then he, and McNamara who was working under his command at the time, would have prosecuted as war criminals. At another point, McNamara wonders out loud “What makes it immoral if you lose, but moral if you win.”

There is undoubtedly something mesmerizing about McNamara’s sustained discussion of what we should learn from the experience of war. It is connected with his obsessive effort to portray himself as a man of reason and efficiency who always performed as well as humanly possible in view of the historical circumstances. Sure, he made mistakes with horrifying human consequences, but he could not do otherwise and serve the leadership and reflect the priorities of his country. Significantly, the McNamara of the movie and of real life has trouble expressing emotion except in highly personal encounters. It is odd that the only times that McNamara seems choked with emotion is when he recalls picking out a cemetery plot for the burial of JFK after his assassination and when Lyndon Johnson awards him the Medal of Freedom after dismissing him as Secretary of Defense over disagreements on how to prosecute and explain the Vietnam War. When he is talking about destroying nations with nuclear bombs or about the millions of Vietnamese killed by American tactics or about the toxic effects of Agent Orange used extensively as a defoliant, McNamara remains cool as a cucumber, all head, no heart.

Closely related, are the revealing points at which he draws red lines as to where he refuses to go with the inquiry. When asked about why he did not speak out on the war after he left the Defense Department, he refuses to answer. Similarly, when it comes to the specifics of his personal responsibility. I know that close friends and associates begged McNamara to speak out against the Vietnam War after he left the Pentagon, which just might have led to a dramatic shortening of a futile effort, saving thousands of lives, and yet he refused. In the present global setting McNamara is deeply critical of the American response to 9/11, especially to the Iraq War, but when asked to comment, he refuses once again to offer any criticism of the roles played by Rumsfeld and Bush. From personal experience, I went to see McNamara at the World Bank in the 1970s about loaning money to Chile during the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. He asked that our meeting be treated as “off-the-record,” and then proceeded to say how he more than anyone would rejoice at the overthrow of Pinochet, but said he would continue to encourage the bank to prop up the regime with loans. Once again McNamara was blending almost seamlessly a career at the summits of power with moral indignation that is kept safely “in the closet.”

We learn from the film that at every stage of his life, from primary school onwards, McNamara burned with ambition and glowed with a sense of achievement. He tells us that he was the youngest assistant professor ever appointed at the Harvard Business School. In a sense, McNamara can be best understood as a consummate careerist who was also remained a compulsive teacher throughout his life. Serving the rich and powerful, whether in the Ford Motor Company, or in Washington, he is at every stage more loyal to his superiors than responsive to the moral precepts he has always delighted in espousing. McNamara is the man of reason who still at the age of 85 turns lives into statistics, with a self-satisfying smile, while explaining his Lesson # 6: “Get the Data.”

McNamara seems amused while recalling that when his fiancé, then living in a separate city, wanted to send out engraved wedding invitations, she sent him a message asking for his full middle name, to which McNamara responded “Strange.” His future wife replied, “I know you are strange, but what is your middle name?” Perhaps, in the end, McNamara’s life and sensibility are best understood by having given a original and enigmatic twist to the word strange!

*Richard Falk, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.