The Fog of War (2003)


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 American documentary film about the life and times of former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara illustrating his observations of the nature of modern warfare.

Also known as The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (UK title) and The McNamara Project (US working title).

Outline (Concept)

Using archival footage, United States Cabinet conversation recordings, and an interview of the then eighty-five-year-old Robert McNamara, The Fog of War depicts his life, from his birth during the First World War remembering the time American troops returned from Europe, to his service as an air force officer in World War II, to joining Ford Motor Company as one of the Whiz Kids, rising to become the company’s president, before serving as Secretary of Defence for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (including his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War).

In a 2004 appearance at U.C. Berkeley, Errol Morris said his inspiration for the documentary derived from McNamara’s book (with James G. Blight), Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (2001). Morris originally approached McNamara for an interview for an hour-long television special. That was extended multiple times and Morris decided to make a feature film. Morris interviewed McNamara for some twenty hours; the two-hour documentary comprises eleven lessons from In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). He posits, discourses upon, and propounds the lessons in the interview that is The Fog of War. Moreover, at the U.C. Berkeley event, McNamara disagreed with Morris’s interpretations in The Fog of War, yet, on completion, McNamara supplemented the original eleven lessons with an additional ten lessons; they are in The Fog of War DVD.

When asked to apply the eleven lessons from In Retrospect to the US invasion of Iraq, McNamara refused, arguing that ex-secretaries of defence must not comment upon the incumbent defence secretary’s policies. He suggested other people could apply the eleven lessons to the war in Iraq, but that he would not, noting that the lessons are about war in general, not a specific war.

Outline (Plot)

The film focuses primarily on the interviews of former Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, who was interviewed for about 20 hours by the director of the documentary, Errol Morris, through a special device called the “Interrotron” which projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other. Use of this device is intended to convey actual interaction with each other and direct eye contact with the viewer.

In the interviews, McNamara talks about aspects of international security and how and by what means it can be influenced by circumstances. The documentary explores recent events in American history and also focuses on McNamara’s life and how he rose from a humble American family to be a politician who achieved enormous power and influence. McNamara worked with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and with general Curtis LeMay, and had direct access to many governmental documents. His opinions, personal experiences and lessons learned while serving as a Secretary of Defence can provide the audience with an enlightening philosophy and outlook on American politics.

The documentary covers important events such as World War II, Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and many others that McNamara himself witnessed.

McNamara is regarded as the “architect” of the Vietnam War, a war that cost an enormous number of lives against a foe whose resolve he seriously underestimated. McNamara’s interview, along with archival footage, offers a close look at international security and the international relations of the US, and an insight into why certain conflicts occur and the lessons that can be learned from these conflicts.


Reviews for the film were very positive.

The Eleven Basic Tenets

Lesson 01: Empathise with your Enemy1. McNamara repeats this sentence several times throughout the documentary.
2. He discusses the moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he and Kennedy were trying to keep the United States out of war but General Curtis LeMay wanted to invade Cuba. Kennedy discovered LeMay’s obsession with nuclear weapons when focusing on the Laotian problem in 1961.
3. Kennedy received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara refers to them as the “hard message” and the “soft message.” McNamara differentiated the two messages because the first message was informal, and the second message was formal and was broadcast around the world. McNamara stated the first message sounded like it came from a “drunk man or one under a lot of stress.” It stated if the United States guaranteed to not invade Cuba, the missiles would be taken out by Cuba. The second and “hard message” stated that if “you [United States] attack [Cuba] we’re prepared to confront you with masses of military power.”
4. Llewellyn Thompson, a former US ambassador to Moscow, urged Kennedy to respond to the soft message. Thompson knew Khrushchev personally and believed that Khrushchev wanted only to be able to tell Cuba he stopped an invasion from the US.
5. Kennedy eventually changed his mind to agree with Thompson.
Lesson 02: Rationality Alone Will Not Save Us1. McNamara emphasized it was luck that prevented nuclear war.
2. Rational individuals like Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro came close to creating national destruction.
3. McNamara states that the possibility of nuclear destruction still exists today.
Lesson 03: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self1. This lesson was used to describe McNamara’s private life.
2. McNamara states that “there’s something beyond one’s self and a responsibility to society.”, McNamara discussed when he started to court his wife, Margaret Craig, and had a child.
3. Then the war came.
4. McNamara was then promoted to the youngest assistant professor at Harvard.
Lesson 04: Maximise Efficiency1. McNamara was brought back from the Eighth air force and assigned to the first B-29, 58th Bomb Wing flying planes.
2. It was thought the B-29s could destroy targets much more efficiently and effectively.
3. McNamara was in charge of analysing bombing operations and how to make them more efficient.
Lesson 05: Proportionality Should be a Guideline in War1. McNamara talks about the proportions of cities destroyed in Japan by the US.
2. McNamara compares destroyed cities of Japan to cities in the US before the dropping of the nuclear bomb.
3. Tokyo, roughly the size of New York City, was 51% destroyed; Toyama, the size of Chattanooga, 99% destroyed; Nagoya, the size of Los Angeles, 40% destroyed; Osaka, the size of Chicago, 35% destroyed; Kobe, the size of Baltimore, 55% destroyed.
4. Then, McNamara compares the proportionality of the war on Japan to being immoral.
Lesson 06: Get the Data1. McNamara worked at Ford in an executive position and conducted studies on buyer demographics to accident reports to make cars safer.
2. McNamara was later promoted to president of Ford and was the first person outside the family to hold that position.
3. He quit only five weeks later because of a position offered to him by Kennedy. Kennedy had offered McNamara a position as the Secretary of Treasury which he declined and later accepted the position as the Secretary of Defence.
Lesson 07: Belief and Seeing are Both often WrongMcNamara’s affirmation (of Morris’s relation) of lesson 7 to the Gulf of Tonkin incident:, “We see what we want to believe.”
Lesson 08: Be Prepared to Re-examine your Reasoning1. McNamara believed even though the United States is the strongest nation in the world, it should never use that power unilaterally: “if we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we better reexamine our reasoning.”
Lesson 09: In Order to do Good, You May have to Engage in Evil“Recognize at times we have to engage in evil, but minimize it.”
Lesson 10: Never Say NeverMcNamara believed the responsibility for the Vietnam War is on the president and says that if Kennedy had lived, the situation would have been better.
Lesson 11: You Can’t Change Human NatureMcNamara talks about the “fog of war” by comparing it to the human mind and how it cannot be fully understood.

Ten Additional Lessons from R.S. McNamara

These topics were selected by McNamara to supplement the documentary; they are in the DVD’s special features.

  1. The human race will not eliminate war in this century, but we can reduce the brutality of war – the level of killing – by adhering to the principles of a “Just War,” in particular to the principle of “proportionality.”
  2. The indefinite combinations of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.
  3. We [the U.S.A.] are the most powerful nation in the world – economically, politically, and militarily – and we are likely to remain so for decades ahead. But we are not omniscient. If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of the proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental US, Alaska and Hawaii.
  4. Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign policy and defence policy, but surely we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of US foreign policy and, indeed, of foreign policy across the globe: the avoidance, in this century, of the carnage – 160 million dead – caused by conflict in the 20th century.
  5. We, the richest nation in the world, have failed in our responsibility to our own poor and to the disadvantaged across the world to help them advance their welfare in the most fundamental terms of nutrition, literacy, health and employment.
  6. Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course, they have responsibilities to stockholders, but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers and to society as a whole.
  7. President Kennedy believed the primary responsibility of a president is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.
  8. War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations, and economic sanctions are rarely effective. Therefore, we should build a system of jurisprudence based on the International Court – that the US has refused to support – which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.
  9. If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy – I don’t mean “sympathy,” but rather “understanding” – to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.
  10. One of the greatest dangers we face today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction as a result of the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Regime. We in the US are contributing to that breakdown.

Robert McNamara’s 11 Lessons from Vietnam

From Robert McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

  1. We misjudged then – and we have since – the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.
  2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
  3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
  4. Our misjudgements of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.
  5. We failed then – and have since – to recognise the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
  6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.
  7. After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.
  8. We did not recognise that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgement of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.
  9. We did not hold to the principle that US military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
  10. We failed to recognise that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.
  11. Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organise the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues.

These are slightly shortened versions of the text from page 321 to page 323 of his book.


  • The title derives from the military concept of the “fog of war” depicting the difficulty of making decisions in the midst of conflict.
  • The film won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature.
  • It was non-competitively screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • In 2019, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
  • Sony Pictures Classics allowed proceeds from limited screenings of The Fog of War to benefit Clear Path International’s work with victims of war in Vietnam.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Errol Morris
  • Producer(s):
    • Julie Ahlberg … producer.
    • Robert Fernandez … co-producer.
    • Jon Kamen … executive producer.
    • Adam Kosberg … associate producer.
    • Jack Lechner … executive producer.
    • Robert May … executive producer.
    • Errol Morris … producer.
    • Ann Petrone … associate producer.
    • Frank Scherma … executive producer.
    • John Sloss … executive producer.
    • Michael Williams … producer.
  • Writer(s):
  • Music:
    • Philip Glass.
  • Cinematography:
    • Robert Chappell … director of photography (as Bob Chappell).
    • Peter Donahue … director of photography.
  • Editor(s):
    • Doug Abel.
    • Chyld King.
    • Karen Schmeer.
  • Production:
    • Sony Pictures Classics (presents) (copyright owners) (An Errol Morris Film).
    • RadicalMedia (as
    • SenArt Films (as Senart Films Production).
    • The Globe Department Store (in association with).
  • Distributor(s):
    • Sony Pictures Classics (2003) (USA) (theatrical).
    • Ascot Elite Entertainment Group (2004) (Switzerland) (theatrical) (German speaking region).
    • Barbar Film (2004) (Turkey) (theatrical).
    • Bio Rex Distribution (2004) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Columbia TriStar Films (2004) (France) (theatrical).
    • Columbia TriStar Films (2004) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
    • Mongrel Media (2004) (Canada) (theatrical).
    • Movienet (2004) (Germany) (theatrical).
    • Sony Pictures Entertainment (2004) (Japan) (theatrical).
    • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2005) (UK) (TV) (BBC2).
    • Columbia TriStar Films de Argentina (2004) (Argentina) (all media).
    • Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (2005) (Netherlands) (DVD).
    • Columbia TriStar Home Video (2004) (USA) (DVD).
    • LK-TEL (2004) (Argentina) (DVD).
    • LK-TEL (2004) (Argentina) (VHS).
    • Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2005) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Sony Pictures Television International (USA) (TV).
    • Universal Pictures Finland (2005) (Finland) (DVD).
  • Release Date: 21 May 2003 (Cannes International Film Festival).
  • Running time: 107 minutes.
  • Rating: PG.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Video Link

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