The best documentary released in a year that became famous for its excellent (and often very popular) documentaries, Errol Morris’ Oscar-nominated The Fog of War reconnoiters nearly a half-century of American cultural, military and political history via an extensive, ruminative interview with Robert S. McNamara, whose long career in the public sphere climaxed when he served as Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Like other Morris documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death, The Fog of War combines deep thematic fascinations with an elegantly mesmerizing stylistic surface (here again including a score by Philip Glass) for an effect that is at once relentlessly absorbing and profoundly disturbing.

Its disturbances mainly stem from the unmistakable sense that what we’re watching is not really about the past; it’s about perils facing us right now. As you may have heard, the film has provoked comment for the parallels it suggests between America’s bloody debacle in Vietnam, which McNamara presided over, and our creeping current disaster in Iraq–a rather uncanny irony given that Morris began working on his film before 9/11. Yet the parallel I found most striking relates to questions that went largely unasked at the turn of the millennium.

The 20th century, after all, bore a unique distinction: it was the era when humankind created tools that enable it to effect global suicide, and came within a hair’s-breath from using them. Why has humanity’s knowledge outrun its wisdom so drastically? Given the continued growth in science’s ability to destroy life, will the next century see the apocalypse that we narrowly avoided in the last? What changes could reduce the likelihood of species suicide? And, why are these questions not planted in the forefront of public debate and kept there until some plausible answers are adduced?

Such questions are apparently what propelled McNamara back into the spotlight, and they are at the heart of his account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in The Fog of War. The defense chief’s recollections are firmly at odds with Thirteen Days‘ vision of Jack and Bobby Kennedy sagely saving the world from nuclear destruction. Rather, JFK had two options in front of him, and, rather than heeding the many voices that would have plunged America into war, he listened to a former U.S. ambassador to the USSR, Tommy Thompson, who knew Krushchev and urged that he was looking for a way to step away from the brink. But what if Thompson had not been present at this meeting? McNamara chillingly concludes that only “blind luck” prevented nuclear war.

The film is divided into 11 “lessons” derived from McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect. The title given the Cuban Missile Crisis lesson is “Empathize With Your Enemy.” While that advice is uncommonly sane, it is hardly typical. Most of The Fog of War plays as a brutally sober reflection on the “normal” insanity that led to the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people in the last century, often by educated bureaucrats wielding the instruments of state power.

In McNamara’s telling, America looks anything but blameless. Call me naive but I knew hardly anything about the U.S. firebombing of Japan during World War II, when McNamara was an advisor to hawkish Gen. Curtis LeMay. These raids were aimed at cities and destroyed scores of them; an attack on Tokyo killed 100,000 people–civilians–in a single night. McNamara, who discusses these horrors with a dry detachment, recalls LeMay remarking that if American commanders had not been on the winning side, they would have been prosecuted as war criminals.

Part of the fascination of such accounts is that McNamara is no alien, self-evidently sinister Strangelove like Henry Kissinger, another of our celebrated mass murderers. His life in many ways is an archetype of apple-pie Americana. His earliest memory, from age three, is of World War I’s end. He went to Harvard Business School and later became president of the Ford Motor Company, where he led the drive to make cars safer by introducing seat belts. When he was invited to Washington by JFK as the youngest defense secretary ever, this gray-flannel-suited organization man was truly one of “the best and the brightest”–a bitterly ironic description if there ever was one.

The war that will be forever associated with McNamara’s name, Vietnam, cost the lives of 3.4 million Vietnamese and over 50,000 Americans. McNamara now thinks it was “wrong,” and that’s one reason he talked to Morris. Clearly haunted by the catastrophe he wrought, he’s now turning it over and over in his mind, trying to figure out what went awry. Yet time’s lessons don’t come easily. It wasn’t till a 1995 visit to Vietnam and a meeting with his former adversaries that McNamara seems to have really grasped that the North Vietnamese weren’t acting at the behest of the Russians and Chinese (their longtime enemies) but, rather, were waging a war of national liberation against a particularly obdurate occupier.

He thinks Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam if he’d lived and been reelected, and he sounds like he helped Lyndon Johnson escalate the war with a certain degree of reluctance. The accuracy of such assertions can of course be argued. Less questionable are certain similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, beginning with the ways two administrations hoodwinked the American people and Congress into a needless expenditure of young American lives. Long before the Bush gang’s fraudulent claims regarding weapons of mass destruction, LBJ and company trumped up an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin (which Morris illustrates using footage from a U.S. re-creation) as a pretext for expanding the chief executive’s war-making powers.

Of course, there are differences between the two conflicts. In comparison, the U.S. invasion of Iraq looks knowing and deeply cynical, the product of a clique of ideologues motivated by an imperialist agenda, where the great tragedy of Vietnam was that it at first seemed a reasonable defense of American interests as yet another stage in our long and necessary battle against the communist branch of 20th century totalitarianism.

Even so, both wars are distinguished by the overweening arrogance and hubris of some of the civilian leaders who pushed them. Though now somewhat softened by time, McNamara was a cocky, self-righteous prick in the 1960s, with an appearance and demeanor that eerily anticipated current defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

As for comparing Vietnam and Iraq, McNamara has refrained from directly criticizing the Bush administration, but you get the drift of his opinions in statements like this: “We are the strongest nation in the world today, and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we’d followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”

McNamara doesn’t seem overly anguished about the devastation he has wrought, and some have charged that Morris let him off too easily by declining to grill him. In an article called “The Fog of Cop-out,” Alexander Cockburn compared McNamara to Hitler’s smooth-talking lieutenant Albert Speer and argues that Morris should have given him a “pasting.” Though understanding that sentiment, I agree with the more subtle and sympathetic tack Morris took, since, rather than putting McNamara in a moral penalty box and thus separating him from us, it makes a painful but crucial point: McNamara is us.

Morris’ views, in any case, are clear enough. He sees the horrible irony that, much like Bush’s current war theorizers, McNamara felt such a “strong ideological connection to Woodrow Wilson’s belief that the First World War was a war to end all wars.” Of the latter phrase, Morris asks in his press notes, “Isn’t it an oxymoron? War doesn’t end war. War leads to war.”

Beyond all questions of particular wars, The Fog of War resonates with Morris’ longstanding philosophical suspicion that “most things are deeply out of control.” And he knows that our propensities cast doubt on our ability to survive the current technological era, saying, “Let’s face facts. Our DNA is the same DNA that we had in the jungle 50,000 years ago. But our destructive capacity has changed markedly. In the last 50 years it has become possible to talk about destroying the world.”

If only for bringing that possibility back to our attention in a uniquely troubling way, The Fog of War demands to be seen. EndBlock