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Robert S. McNamara's War Crimes Confession

by Phil Ethington

In 2003, Errol Morris captured the former Secretary of Defense, the architect of the Vietnam War, confessing that he and General Curtis LeMay "were behaving as war criminals" in the savage firebombing attacks on Tokyo and many other Japanese cities in the last year of the Pacific War, 1944-45. The confession stands for itself and must be regarded as a major landmark toward achieving accountability for the deliberate attacks on civilian populations by the United States. McNamara is the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to have recognized these firebombing and nuclear attacks, which killed more than 750,000 people, as war crimes. But these powerful, moving sections of a masterful film are also highly misleading, so admirers of the film should be cautioned not to take this confession at face value.   In his preamble to the confession, McNamara tosses into the air the whole moral question of whether or not to kill 100,000 noncombatants in a single night.  He suggests that we don't have the answer any more.  It was, he explains, citing the Kamikaze as his only comparative example, just another episode in a world that had lost its moral compass--that we still, today, the world has failed to define the rules of war--which he significantly derides: "I'll call it the rules of war."  As though the concept had not been identified yet!  McNamara confesses, to be sure, but he also retreats from a full confession by calling into question the standards for maintaining any rules of war at all. His closing question, "but what makes it immoral if you lose, but not immoral if you win?" genuinely indicates the correct answer (it is always wrong no matter who wins or loses), while calling that moral certainty into question. That LeMay got away with war crimes because his side won and there was no one with the power and will to judge them, seems to show that the moral standards have been eclipsed by sheer might. As shockingly new as it seems, then, McNamara's confession is also a swipe at the standards that could be used to judge McNamara in a war crimes tribunal. It is, indeed, just a re-statement of the rationale used by the President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, planners and commanders of the B-29 incendiary raids and the two atomic attacks on Japan: This may have been considered wrong at one time, but we do it because this is a fight against an inhumane. But in fact the McNamara and LeMay knew full well that the rules of war had long forbidden and outlawed the bombardment of noncombatants in undefended cities. The United States had been signatory to the Hague Convention of 1898 that sated just that, and Franklin Roosevelt had denounced as "barbaric" the bombardment of civilians from the air several times, as early as his Quarantine the Aggressors speech of 1937. The US command, upon closer inspection, decided to proceed with the "Douhet" air war doctrine. This doctrine, published by the Italian Fascist Giuliano Douhet in 1921, which was to wreak devastation on the civilian population as a strategic bid to force the enemy nation to collapse internally. Because Japanese cities--especially the residential districts--were made of wood and paper, war planners realized that Douhet's theory had a high probability of success, and proceeded to produce and whip huge quantities of napalm, which they dropped on Japan at a rate 10 x higher than that of High Explosive (H.E.) weapons.

Robert S. McNamara's Confession of War Crimes in Errol Morris's The Fog of War (2003)

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During extended treatment of the Firebombing of Japan, Robert S. McNamara openly confesses to war crimes, on his own behalf and that of General Curtis LeMay, who directed the attacks of the XX Bomber Command.

from The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Creator: Errol Morris
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Posted by Phil Ethington
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