Foggy Warriors

The documentary as populist rabble-rouse

Magazine Issue
September/October 2004
Foggy Warriors

During the past year or so, we’ve now had two prize-winning documentaries that not only examine what goes on inside the heads of the men who take us to war, but also shed light on the remarkable surge of popularity in documentary filmmaking. Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, now on DVD, slowly unfolds and meticulously makes its case, following the usual rules about what makes a serious documentary. Accordingly, in its original release, it succeeded in attracting crowds of dozens. Fahrenheit 9/11, the one film everybody talked about all summer, broke all the rules, attracted crowds of billions, and, even as you read this, may still be changing the world, as it’s about to be released on DVD for home viewing as the election approaches.

The Fog of War, last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about misjudgment in the White House, was made by Errol Morris, a filmmaker painstakingly dedicated to getting the facts, whose previous documentaries have, among other things, caught killers and freed the falsely accused. Here, Morris sits down with Robert McNamara as he–one of the main architects of our involvement in Vietnam–looks back and tells us what he’s learned about war.

McNamara was the remarkably brainy, seemingly bloodless, Harvard technocrat who was plucked from the presidency of the Ford Motor Company to serve John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson for seven disastrous years as Secretary of Defense. Forty years later, he sees many errors in his performance, but much to be proud of, too. His war cost 58,000 American lives and 3,400,000 Vietnamese, but he prides himself on the lives he saved by introducing seat belts into Ford motorcars and ordering the unloading of the rifles held by the soldiers guarding the Pentagon at the March on Washington. He sheds real tears for Kennedy and pats himself on the back for resigning from the government when Johnson didn’t heed his letter urging de-escalation of the Vietnam War. That moment may very well have been a turning point for Johnson, but he had no reverse gear and was eventually forced to not run for reelection.

McNamara tries to amend his notorious image as a zealot for impersonal war and killing. He insists it wasn’t he but his boss in World War II, ¨uberhawk General Curtis LeMay (George Wallace’s running mate for the presidency in 1968), who firebombed 67 Japanese cities in one night, killing 100,000 civilians in Tokyo alone.

McNamara has come to realize that war is a fog in which no one can see or understand what’s going on–except in retrospect. He now distills his wisdom into 11 deceptively simple-sounding lessons. The most crucial is to “Empathize with your enemy.” He calls on those who make war to understand how their chosen opponent sees and feels the conflict. He learned “There’s something beyond oneself,” i.e., war is too horrible to inflict for the sake of some leader’s glory–or reelection. He also learned that warriors must “Get the data” and “Be prepared to reexamine [their] reasoning.” Finally, he points out that “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.”

Morris’s documentary is sober, precise, and rational, everything we’ve thought documentaries were supposed to be: food for the brain, not for the passions. But the image from Fog that sticks is the one moment of unguarded regret when McNamara drops his dignified air and shows us his pain over not being wise enough when we needed him to be. Suddenly, we’re face-to-face with a basic human truth: you have to live with your mistakes.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a very different kind of documentary. Long before Michael Moore launched this scathing attack on what he calls “our fictitious president” and “his fictitious war,” he reinvented the documentary as popular entertainment. In 1989, Moore brought us the impassioned Roger and Me, a look at his hometown of Flint, Michigan, after Roger Smith closed the General Motors plant and cost the town 40,000 jobs. The scruffy Moore documented his determined efforts to stalk Roger Smith and show him the devastation he’d wrought on so many people’s lives. Moore went on to write a pair of books, Dude, Where’s My Country? and Stupid White Men, about greed, ignorance, arrogance, and lies in high places. Last year, he won an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, his documentary about guns, teenaged massacres, and the NRA (and was booed at the Oscar ceremony for his unsolicited political lecture).

On-screen, the oversized Moore, in a baseball cap and flannel shirt, is known for both his fearlessness and his proudly execrable taste, as in an encounter in Columbine with the clearly at-a-loss Charlton Heston in his dotage. For some, Moore’s lack of couth may actually be his strength. Barbara Ehrenreich has declared Moore the rebuttal to Republican charges of Democratic “liberal elitism.” Whatever Moore is, he’s not elite.

Moore, like Fox News, makes no pretense at fairness or balance. Fahrenheit 9/11 is as brattily provocative as it is powerful, with the no-holds-barred bite of an editorial cartoon. Moore is fired up and out to rouse the sleepy electorate however he can. With blunt, lowbrow, rhetorical weapons, he has no use for the detachment and dignified exposition we’ve come to associate with snobby documentarians. Instead, Moore is determined to prove to us that, despite all of our vaunted freedom of the press, there are places the managed-news media haven’t been permitted to go and things we, the public, haven’t been permitted to see.

What makes Fahrenheit 9/11 such a crowd-pleasing expose´ is much more than Moore’s rant and Bush-bashing–it’s those all-too-real images he puts before us. Moore jolts us with footage of a lazy, detached, rich-kid president spending much of his first eight months in office vacationing and smugly playing golf. Over and over again, he describes to us in conspiratorial tones the Bush family’s fraternal relationship with the Saudi royal family and connections with the international oil cartels. But the most disturbing image is the revelation of President Bush sitting for seven silent minutes in a kindergarten classroom after the message comes in that a second plane has hit the remaining Twin Tower. Bush looks paralyzed and profoundly foolish as he listens to a reading of My Pet Goat. Meanwhile, Moore’s narration speculates about Bush’s interior monologue: “Why doesn’t someone tell me what I’m supposed to do now? What’s my next line supposed to be in this role I’m playing?”

Moore hammers away at the now-established fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (the only place on earth regularly searched and found to be free of them), and no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein. He explains the decision to go to war with Iraq by showing a clip of Bush justifying it by saying, “I know he [Hussein] is an evil man: he tried to kill my daddy.” Moore keeps showing us images the press has censored or shunned: we see outraged Iraqis whose families and homes have just been destroyed; inexperienced American soldiers fortifying themselves for the terrors of guerrilla combat by chanting “Burn, motherfucker, burn” as they prepare to go on a mission; legless and armless GIs home from Iraq, wondering why they were there in the first place. Moore’s assault on the administration gets its immediacy and credibility, not because he carries on like the left’s answer to Bill O’Reilly, but because we see the pictures, we feel like we’re there.

Although he’s less visible than in some of his other films, Moore still finds moments to put himself center stage in Fahrenheit 9/11. He goes with military recruiters to pockets of unemployment in Flint, trying to find the poor, minority youth whose best chance for advancement is going to Iraq. Noticing that only one of the congressional supporters of the Iraq War has a child in the military there, Moore passes out recruiting literature outside the Capitol and invites stupefied-looking congresspersons and senators to have their children enlist. To Moore, the unabashed populist rabble-rouser, the rich are once again sending the poor to fight their wars for them.

The most heartrending moments from the film belong to Lila Lipscomb, a middle-aged mother and former welfare recipient from Moore’s hometown of Flint whose daughter served in the Gulf War and whose son, a marine in Iraq, is killed there. We see her at work delivering social services as a state employee, we see her at home with the survivors of her family, and we see her in Washington raising hell at the White House. The scenes Moore shows us effectively bring the war home–and devastate us. These are real people being sent to die (and kill) for no honest reason.

Moore’s film may be preaching mostly to the choir, but audiences have cheered it wildly. He seems determined to shock us into the realization of just how much we aren’t being told or, more important, how much we aren’t being shown. “We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance,” he insists. “We don’t know about anything that’s happening outside our country. Our stupidity’s embarrassing.”

To be sure, Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a proper, hushed documentary. It’s rough and raw. Some look at it and applaud Moore for pointing a finger at the truth; but many others just see the finger.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.