As "Fog of War" won Sunday night for best documentary, we have an AWOL president prancing in a flight suit he did not earn, and a Democratic front-runner who was a hero on both sides an issue that still deeply divides us.
Most recently we've also had "The Quiet American," a stunning portrayal of how the US actually got into that horrible war. Behind them both loom the ghosts of three men: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and the centerpiece of "Fog of War, Robert McNamara.
Kennedy is still with us because we don't know what he would have done. Bitter disputes still rage over the meaning of his withdrawal of 1000 (of 16,000) advisors just before his death, and his pledge to be out of Vietnam in 1965. Angry lawsuits have flared up---and could again---over whether Lyndon Johnson was misled, who might have done it, and why he escalated that catastrophic war in an unparalleled act of individual, party and national suicide.
But the real roots of this conflict come from the Cold War. "The Quiet American" is as brilliant a book about the era's folly as has ever been written. Graham Greene's graceful, understated portrait of the prototypical young CIA operative who blunders around 1952 Saigon like a buffalo in heat is a multi-layered classic that will last through the ages. The Oscar-honored film adaptation does it justice. Michael Caine is brilliant as the weathered Brit making his last journalistic stand in the distant provinces. He has gone native and has burned his bridges behind him. Brendan Fraser brings him the war he needs to justify the outpost. As a cocky, Harvard-style imperial missionary, Fraser shows us how imperial America decided it could and would tell the Vietnamese and the rest of the Third World how they would be governed. With his Boy Scout handbook on installing non-communist regimes, he sounds like an early neo-con explaining how things will be in Iraq. Though stockier and smarter, he conjures the frat boy George W. Bush running loose in the imperial tropics. Now in video/DVD, "The Quiet American" has its slow moments early on. But it's a stunning, essential portrayal of how we got into the quagmire that ruined this nation.
Robert McNamara's performance in "Fog of War" is equally essential, and follows on nicely. Clearly this is the octogenarian's mea culpa and farewell performance. Sharp, aggressive, brilliant, he did not sit for 20 hours of interview without purpose.
Ironically, the greatest shocks come with his discussion of his role in World War II. Instrumental in the fire bombing of Tokyo at the end of World War II, he almost casually admits to being a war criminal. He adds, with a line for the ages, the deciding factor in what constitutes a war crime is which side won the war.
But since that was the "Good War," McNamara knows he can be forgiven. In Vietnam, we lost, and things are more delicate.
This film from Errol Morris is very slickly produced. The music from Philip Glass is hypnotic, and the quick-step use of graphics is imaginative.
But the packaging---and lack of balancing counter-narrative---produces some shocking moments. For example, McNamara tells us that when told Vietnamese Premier Diem had been murdered, JFK turned ashen. The implication is that the killing came as a surprise.
But Kennedy himself ordered Diem's murder. It came on November 1, 1963, just three weeks prior to JFK's own murder. For McNamara to say merely that Kennedy lost his coloring is a jaw-dropper. It could, indeed, have been true. Perhaps Kennedy realized at that Shakespearean moment that he had committed America to an impossible burden. But the implication he didn't know the killing was coming is absurd.
In retrospect Kennedy's own close-on death seems almost divine retribution for that ill-conceived murder. While one may disbelieve that JFK would have done otherwise, it is clear from then on that Lyndon Johnson prosecuted the war with the belief that it had to be won. The portrayal of Vietnam as Lyndon Johnson's war is widely shared.
McNamara is widely quoted as telling LBJ the war couldn't be won, and is happy to repeat the sentiment here. But key is that he never said it SHOULDN'T be won. And toward film's end he offers yet another shocking dissemblance. At a "reunion" dinner between former American and Vietnamese adversaries, McNamara says he almost "came to blows" with a counterpart who told him the Vietnamese were fighting for their independence, and not as part of the international communist conspiracy.
Here the scenario is almost laughable. Most of the world not hypnotized by American television knew quite well that the Vietnamese had been fighting for their independence for a thousand years. They fought the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, the Americans. And after the Americans, they fought the Chinese yet again.
For us to swallow what McNamara says happened at that dinner we would have to believe he knew absolutely nothing about Vietnamese history. He apparenlty means to imply that somehow this horrible war was a just frightful, tragically avoidable misunderstanding.
In the postscripts we're reminded that McNamara went on to serve many years at the head of the World Bank. He was every bit the imperialist there, with a legendary disregard for home rule and ecological sanity. We come away believing that he may have made the right call in telling Kennedy and Johnson we couldn't win in Vietnam. But he never answers for why we were really there. Only a more complete discussion of his goals and "achievements" at the World Bank could give us that insight, and for that we'll have to await the outtakes. Maybe Errol Morris can put them on the DVD.
Meantime, by far the most frightening sequences of this film come in McNamara's pre-Vietnam discussions of the Cuban missile crisis. There's little that's new. But whatever one thinks of this man morally, there's no disputing his technical genius, or that of our young president at the time, and his brother. They faced all-out nuclear war and somehow didn't let it happen.
Fast forward to the crew currently in the White House and you have a genuinely terrifying reality. Vietnam was a horror show. And McNamara was a smart man whose value system did not include the heart or wisdom needed to pull us out of what those "Quiet Americans" got us into.
But he, like the makers of "The Fog of War," have the good sense to warn that we are now at the brink of a "rabbit hole" in southwest Asia not unlike the one that decimated us in southeast Asia.
And tragically, that earlier jungle quagmire didn't hold a candle to what the fundamentalist fanatics now running this country could do to the world in a complex confrontation involving real weapons of mass destruction. They need to go, soon. They need to be replaced with people that have McNamara's brains, but with a human value system to match. Or we could all be goners.
If there's a subtext message to these two films, and to all Americans in this election year, it's that we need a crew in Washington with both brains and heart. Right now, at our great peril, neither is to be seen.
Harvey Wasserman is senior editor of The Free Press (www.freepress.org) and author of The Last Energy War (Seven Stories Press). His newest book is George W. Bush Vs. the Superpower of Peace, co-authored with Bob Fitrakis (Free Press, 2003).
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