‘Are you gonna come back in 25 years for the Rumsfeld movie?” asks Brian Flanagan, a hulking 57-year-old “wine consultant” who was once prosecuted for attempted murder as a member of the sixties antiwar Weather Underground. Hiking boots on the ground, he and fellow former Weatherman Jeff Jones, a 56-year-old fugitive turned environmental lobbyist, were surrounded by the usual guest-listees (Mike Wallace, Anne Bass, Steve Brill, Georgette Mosbacher) at the Asia Society for a screening of Errol Morris’s new documentary, The Fog of War.
The film is about Vietnam-era secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his occasionally wet-eyed octogenarian’s drive to explain just how that horrible war happened. It’s structured around eleven “lessons” about war-making he learned, like “Rationality won’t save us,” and McNamara is at once terrifyingly blasé and semi-contrite about such things as the introduction of Agent Orange. Lesson No. 1 is, “Empathize with your enemy.” So, do the ex-Weathermen empathize with McNamara?
“We hated him as much as people hate Rumsfeld today,” says Jones, who dozed off for a while late in the screening despite being incensed.
“McNamara never sort of sits down and takes responsibility. In fact, when it’s over, you get the idea that he felt like he did a pretty good job.”
Flanagan thinks post-Vietnam generations will “get the irony” of the film, and recommends it. “But there was very little in this movie about the antiwar movement,” says Jones. “There was just the one scene at the protest at the Pentagon and a mention of [activist] Norman Morrison and his self-immolation, which was an important statement.” At one point in the film, McNamara actually likens his moral struggle to Morrison’s.
“There were at least two attempts on McNamara’s life,” adds Jones. “That was one of my tests for this film, if it included that. There was a man named Nguyen Van Troi who tried to kill him in Vietnam and was executed. He was a hero to us. There was a poster: LIVE LIKE NGUYEN VAN TROI. Then there was a guy who tried to throw McNamara off the side of the Martha’s Vineyard ferry.”
“And I notice they never did mention the Edsel,” says Jones (McNamara was also president of Ford). “Which was his singular achievement, and one of the greatest failures in the company’s history.”
“George Bush’s greatest accomplishment,” says Flanagan, “was trading Sammy Sosa to the Chicago Cubs.”