Young Fred goes to work with his father.

Success at Ford lands McNamara in the Kennedy Cabinet.

Death circuits

Military efficiency

McNamara’s appeal

Fred’s appeal

Ernst Zündel, Holocaust revisionist

Gas chamber

Star-struck, McNamara accepting the post of Secretary of Defense.

The nature of things to come is prefigured by snow the night McNamara met with Kennedy.

The fog of war

Any military commander will make mistakes.

Curtis LeMay

Tokyo burning

The hot cold war

MAD: mutually assured destruction

Draftees prepare for the worst.

Rolling thunder: two to three times more bombs dropped in Vietnam than fell on Western Europe in WW2

Bob explains why: to win Vietnamese hearts and minds requires their physical security.

Time lapse footage indicates the shadowy existence of foreign people for our leaders: here, the quasi-reality of the Japanese and ...

... the quasi-existence of the Vietnamese.

The ephemeral reality of the victims in the minds of wartime leaders makes people ...

... maimed and killed just filed away mentally as “collateral damage.”


Death and contradiction:
Errol Morris’ tragic
view of technokillers

by Laurie Calhoun

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), both directed by Errol Morris, treat the life stories and career trajectories of two men who, though not themselves killers, came to be involved in institutions of killing, conventions and practices devised by human beings expressly in order to effect the deaths of other human beings. Although the stories of Fred Leuchter, an autodidact execution machine expert, and Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1960-1967, are in some ways unique, Director Errol Morris’ portrayal of these men reflects a general philosophical view of the human condition and the predicaments to which human fallibility often leads.

What became Leuchter’s and McNamara’s involvement in state killing was initially a matter of historical chance. Leuchter’s father took his son to work, as many fathers do, but “work” in his case was a prison, where Leuchter interacted with inmates and visited death row. McNamara served for three years in the U.S. Army, analyzing the efficiency of bombing raids during World War II, and he later came into public view as a result of his success at the Ford Motor Company. Five weeks after having been named the president of that company, McNamara was approached by representatives of the incoming Kennedy administration and offered a cabinet position.

Critics of capital punishment and the use of military force as a means of conflict resolution would no doubt claim that, beyond their instrumental role in the deaths of individual human beings, these men both helped to perpetuate state killing, by designing, developing and/or implementing the means to do so. In Leuchter’s case, his willingness to develop what he characterized as “humane” ways by which to kill convicted capital criminals may have had as its most immediate consequence to quell dissent against the practice, which has been outlawed in every Western nation except the United States. Similarly, McNamara’s part in what devolved into the Vietnam debacle contributed at the same time to the amoeba-like expansion of the military-industrial complex, which continues to grow and engulf people and companies long after the end of the Cold War. McNamara and Leuchter naturally view their life’s work in an entirely different light.

McNamara: “I just felt that I was serving at the request of the President, who had been elected by the American people. And it was my responsibility to try to help him to carry out the office as he believed was in the interest of our people.”

Leuchter: “I became involved in the manufacture of execution equipment because I was concerned with the deplorable condition of the hardware that’s in most of the state’s prisons, which generally results in torture prior to death.”

Somewhat ironically, Leuchter’s claim to fame was not his invention of ever better ways to extinguish human beings, but his involvement with the disreputable Holocaust revisionist movement, without which it is probably safe to say that he would never have been made the subject of any film. However, what eventually became Leuchter’s role in denying the reality of the Holocaust, through his publication of The Leuchter Report: The End of a Myth (1988), was a direct consequence of the peculiar line of work in which he had found himself, the business of execution.

Holocaust revisionist Ernst Zündel was on trial in Canada on charges that he had published statements which he knew to be false and which could cause racial intolerance. In his quest to defend himself, Zündel sought out an expert who might be able to prove that prisoners were never gassed to death at Auschwitz. Because gas chambers continue to be used only in one first-world nation, Zündel’s idea at the time was as follows:

"We can solve the mystery of the gas chambers in Auschwitz and all these other places if we find an American expert, because America is the only country that dispatches people with gas. You can’t open up the telephone book and say ‘gas’, and then ‘chamber', and then ‘experts’, and out come ten Fred Leuchters. No. There’s nobody. Fred Leuchter was our only hope.”

Robert McNamara’s appointment as Secretary of Defense was in some ways fortuitous. First he was offered the position of Secretary of the Treasury, for which he claimed to be ill-qualified. Having declined that position, McNamara was then asked to be the Secretary of Defense, for which he also claimed to be ill-qualified. In the end, however, basking in the flattering glory of the moment, McNamara accepted the job, having being reassured by John F. Kennedy,

“Look Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for Presidents either.”

McNamara’s childlike glee in accepting the appointment is evident not only in the archived footage, but even in McNamara’s recalling, at age 85, Kennedy’s announcement to the press:

"That’s how Marg [McNamara’s wife] learned I had accepted. It was on television, live!”

But it was snowing the night when McNamara met with Kennedy, a detail which Morris highlights through including footage of large, heavy snow flakes dropping irrevocably to the ground—what in retrospect reads as a dismal premonition of McNamara’s imminent Fall.

Waging war for peace

The nature of the human intellect and the complexity of the world conspire to ensure that self-inflicted catastrophe is always just around the bend, for, as McNamara himself observes, “We all make mistakes.” In the case of state killing, this entails that some people’s lives are sacrificed for the false beliefs of others, an idea also articulated by McNamara in discussing his interpretation of the metaphor “the fog of war":

"What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

Although in his later life McNamara has warned of the dangers of nuclear arms, he continues to speak for the most part from within the broader and widely accepted perspective according to which the use of military means of dispute resolution is itself obviously reasonable:

"Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily—his own troops or other troops—through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn’t destroyed nations.

And the conventional wisdom is: don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five.”

The “mistakes” about which McNamara warns do not relate to the very idea of wielding military force in circumstances of international conflict. As Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, like all members of the establishment before and after him, simply accepted that the proper course of action in resolving international disputes was to deploy deadly weapons, though this invariably meant that some people would be killed in error. In defending the comportment of Curtis LeMay, under whose command 67 Japanese cities were extensively firebombed, and then, on August 6 and August 9, 1945, atomic bombs dropped upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McNamara explains that LeMay was ultimately concerned to save the country:

"I remember reading that General Sherman in the Civil War said that the mayor of Atlanta pleaded with him to save the city. And Sherman essentially said to the mayor just before he torched it and burned it down: ‘War is cruel. War is cruelty.’ That was the way LeMay felt. He was trying to save the country. He was trying to save our nation. And in the process, he was prepared to do whatever killing was necessary.”

In order to save nations, commanders such as LeMay and managers such as McNamara are willing to annihilate the inhabitants of nations, as though the importance of a nation might somehow transcend the sum total of all of the people who live there. The idea that the state is qualified to decide in the manner of a surrogate God who may live and who should die is quite peculiar, given the nature of institutions in general. A nation is, in the end, no more and no less than a group of people who happen to be ethnically and/or geographically related to one another and who have therefore devised a set of practical rules and conventions by which to facilitate their cohabitation.

The supreme importance of the state is built into the notion of patriotism, which with the Cold War became even more widely embraced as U.S. leaders and policymakers came to regard themselves as defending the intrinsic values of goodness, freedom and democracy against the Soviet Union, thought to epitomize evil, oppression and tyranny. It was during that time, with the massive development of enormously powerful nuclear warheads, that the strategy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) arose out of the state-centered security model. This program of nuclear deterrence by nuclear proliferation led to an exponential increase in military spending for weapons so destructive that they threatened the very continuation of the species, all in the name of “defense.” But when the state reaches the point where it serves not to protect but to threaten the very people by whom it was erected, then it has undermined its very raison d'être.

Nonetheless, the waging of war in the name of peace is an oft-recited litany in a long history of bloody battles between groups of people all of whom invariably claim to be combating evil in order to permit peace to prevail. That the state may destroy its own people is a contradiction widely embraced, for many do support sending soldiers abroad in order to fight wars on behalf of the nation of which they themselves are a part. In capitalist societies with voluntary armies such as the United States, this sacrifice of one portion of the population for the rest is essentially classist, for the bulk of troops come from the lower economic strata and have chosen to enlist primarily as a means of securing a living wage.[1] There is perhaps no more perverse irony than the sacrifice of these particular soldiers, for they enlisted not in order to commit suicide, but in order to enhance the prospects of their own life.

Millions more civilians than soldiers died in Vietnam as a result of the military machine set in motion during McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, including not only the forced enlistment of hundreds of thousands of young men, but also Operation Rolling Thunder, which, McNamara explains,

"Over the years became a very, very heavy bombing program. Two to three times as many bombs as were dropped on Western Europe during all of World War II.”

At the time, McNamara justified to the public the policies he implemented by saying that such military action was needed in order to win the allegiance of the South Vietnamese:

“This is not primarily a military problem. It is a battle for the hearts and the minds of the people of South Vietnam. That’s our objective. As a prerequisite to that, we must be able to guarantee their physical security.”

Director Morris conveys what to military strategists is the shadowy existence of foreign civilians by including time lapse footage that blurs their identity, imparting to them the appearance not of complete people, with friends and families, plans and projects, histories and prospects, but of fleeting images that disappear without the strategists’ ever having to acknowledge their own role in the victims’ demise. From the perspective of military managers such as McNamara, the far away victims of bombing campaigns are never fully real.

In order to illuminate the mechanics of non-natural death from the perspective of those who orchestrate war, Morris also includes many shots of bombs and missiles from aesthetic and functional perspectives, abstracted from the bloody context and consequences of their use. In the single twenty-second segment depicting civilian death and suffering, Morris provides a rapid-fire suite of ever-accelerating images thus illustrating how the number of victims in Vietnam increased exponentially as a function of military force applied over time. This use of a series of images of victims, each successive shot of which lasts a shorter period of time than the previous, also reflects the ephemeral reality of these people from the perspective of those who assuage their own conscience by quickly and quietly filing them away in their minds as the “collateral damage” of a “just war.”

Continued: Killing killers for having killed

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