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The Colossus and The Albatross or The Rhyme of The Ancient McNamara

Review of:

The Fog of War
(Dir Errol Morris US. 2003)

Colossus: The Rise & fall of The American Empire
(Nial Ferguson Ch4 Television)

Gerry Fitzsimons

28th June 2004

Two recent media offerings gave us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the US war machine presently consuming Iraq and on the dream of a 1000 year American empire held by many in the leadership of the war machine. 

On offering, by Niall Ferguson, is a relatively slight right-wing TV rant based on a denial of history and an irrational celebration of the joys of subjecting ourselves to the yet-to-be established empire, mixed with manic plaints that the US were too restrained in their savagery.

The second and much more weighty offering is a much acclaimed film by Errol Morris, in which Robert McNamara, former US secretary of defence and architect of many of the war crimes of the 20th century from the fire-bombing of Tokyo through to Vietnam, is given the opportunity to argue his case with the weapons of logic and rationality. 

In the end reason as the handmaiden of capitalist and imperialist irrationality simply paints in darker colours the monster which stalks our world.

At one point during Colossus, Nial Ferguson disappears down what once was a North Vietnamese tunnel, pulling the sod over his head.  I am sure quite a few people watching would have wished that he had stayed there – a feeling that Robert McNamara (albeit for different reasons) would have shared.

For it had been McNamara’s job to send the first military advisors and later infantry to Vietnam.  And even he would have been bemused and even incredulous at Ferguson’s account of America’s involment in South East Asia: no defoliants, no (Mi Lai) massacres, no secret bombing or destruction of Laos or Cambodia, no mention of the Ky or Tieu régimes, no coups against Diem or Siannok and most importantly, no mention of the huge cost in Vietnamese lives for what, according to Ferguson, was an avoidable failure.  How many more would have had to have died if McNamara had gone for the Ferguson/Barry Goldwater option, and completely destroyed North Vietnam, occupied it and then eliminated those who resisted?

Ferguson’s fantasy that a more sustainable American Empire in Vietnam might have resulted from using the methods of British Colonial administration, but only if the Pentagon had found a way of making their overseers immune to radioactivity and dioxin.  Ferguson’s going underground is thus an unwitting metaphor for his vision of victory over North Vietnam, for that would have been the only place from which an American administration of North Vietnam could have functioned.  Vietnam would then have been free at last – it also would have been largely free of Vietnamese. 

If only the American administration had stuck to the problems of winning, and resisted unwelcome ethical evaluations, then great things may have been achieved. Just how great, is the subject of the Fog of War.  For the rhyme and reason of Robert McNamara’s career (whether it was the accumulation of capital at Ford, or as a military analyst) was set by the new science of logistics. A point made by the constant flow of IBM punch-cards which acts as McNamara’s ‘co-narrator’ throughout this documentary. 

The Rational Programming of The Irrational.

Their importance is first made clear when he becomes re enraged about the high percentage – revealed courtesy of those very same punch-cards – of WWII air crew who were aborting their missions because they were afraid of the amount of civilian deaths they would cause.  McNamara’s boss General Curtis Le May responded by first weeding out the reluctants, then using less planes, and ordering the low-level firebombing of all Japanese cities and towns. We then see startling high altitude USAF footage of the inland seas of flame that resulted. 

‘Had we lost’, McNamara quotes Le May as saying, ‘We would have been tried as war criminals.’  There was, he says nothing strategic about that Air Command.

He then found work at Ford trying to locate what in the design of the cars caused the most deaths.  After some work he identified the steering column as the culprit.  If a seat belt was fitted, this would reduce the fatalities.  I would have thought that a similar observation had been made sometime before, about the steering column of an aircraft.

After further analysis of car performance from the punch-cards data, sales dramatically improved, propelling McNamara to the top of the corporation.  It was shortly after this, that the call came from the White House.  There then follows an archive moment which captures all the bad faith of McNamara’s rational programming of the irrational.  The opening archive sequence from the defence department reappears, only without his up-beat tone.  We only see him move quickly about the room pointing up at a large map of Vietnam and then on to several graphs, followed by shots of him holding a captured North Vietnamese gun. Whereas now each of these aspects would be handled by a different ‘expert’, McNamara embodied that unknowing technocratic sensibility described by Chomsky in his “American Power and the New Mandarins” – all elements and aspects of a problem can be reduced to the data-stream form, thereby giving the analyst the power to change decisively their significance. 

Public presentations like this, McNamara later admits, had little to do with what he privately knew from the same analysis.  JFK himself is then heard on the White House tapes questioning McNamara about the levels of advisors and the projected increase that will soon be needed.  The discussion is inconclusive, and we cannot be sure that Kennedy’s reluctance to increase the level of involvement would have been his last word on the matter. 

Analysis then (as now in Iraq) simply gave way to cyclic destruction and dissembling.  Two weeks before Kennedy was killed, the CIA, not satisfied that the South Vietnamese government was acting decisively against the Viet Cong, ‘replaced’ it with a régime more amenable to American aims.  One year later, after a covert naval attack on North Vietnamese island bases (not mentioned in the film) in the gulf of Tonkin, America formally went to war with North Vietnam.  McNamara first confesses his shock at the US coup d’état against Diem (‘that we did that’), and then agrees that there was no evidence of a second attack by the North Vietnamese in reply to the original American attack in the Gulf of Tonkin.

In addition, he also acknowledges the irreparable damage done by the defoliants, and the human cost of the bombing of Vietnam, on which as tells us ‘more bombs were dropped than in the whole of WWII.’  Touring the world with this film, McNamara is not unlike Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, finally compelled to admit the fearful consequences of his / American actions. 

By way of contrast, Ferguson is eager for the US to shoot as many albatrosses as possible.



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