On October 31, 2005, Errol Morris, Academy Award–winning director of The Fog of War, interviewed Adam Curtis, director of The Power of Nightmares, the documentary film which asks the question “Did Johnny Mercer bring down the World Trade Center?” Originally broadcast on the BBC, a film version was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where it was widely praised. Drawing extensively on archival footage from the BBC Library, the film has encountered difficulties in finding distribution in the U.S.
Morris and Curtis discuss conspiracy theories, unintended consequences, and notional moles.
I. ONE MAINE
ERROL MORRIS: The Power of Nightmares uses a substantial quantity of archival material and stock footage. I call it reprocessed media. Perhaps a better expression would be repurposed media. It’s different from the traditional use of found footage in news documentaries. Here stock footage becomes expressionistic, never literal—an excursion into a dream—or, if you prefer, nightmare. I tried at various times in the last six months to find out why The Power of Nightmares is not being shown in the United States. The archival material from the BBC library has been cleared for use in the U.K. but not worldwide.
ADAM CURTIS: It’s not physical censorship, although none of the TV networks want to show it. Something I always wanted to ask you, was [Robert] McNamara happy with the way you cut him [in The Fog of War]?
EM: No, he was not happy. But I’m not sure that anything would’ve made him happy. He never said this to me directly, but he did tell Craig, his son, that he liked the movie.
AC: I thought you treated him just fine. You were ambiguous. It was difficult to know what you thought about him.
EM: I still don’t know what I think. The New York Times, today on the front page, had an article about new evidence concerning incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964.The incidents, which are discussed in The Fog of War, have been disputed for over forty years. There are those that believe that they were part of a conspiracy to escalate the Vietnam War. Here’s a question: are they right? And, in an even more general sense, is history primarily a history of conspiracy? Or is it just a series of blunders, one after the other? Confusions, self-deceptions, idiocies of one kind or another?
AC: It’s the latter. Where people do set out to have conspiracies, they don’t ever end up like they’re supposed to. History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they’re taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended. For example, you could say the Gulf of Tonkin was a conspiratorial action to accelerate entry into war, yes?
EM: Here’s the conspiracy argument. The Johnson administration wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam. But they needed a pretext. And so they provoked these two incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to get Congressional approval for escalation. The claim is: they had a grand plan. And the plan was war. I’ve never had much of an appetite for conspiracy theories. Here’s my argument in a nutshell: people are too much at cross purposes with each other, too stupid, too self-absorbed to ever effectively conspire to do anything.
AC: “Just too self-absorbed” is the key element. To make a conspiracy work, you have to see it from all different angles to make sure the plan works. They don’t. Every time you ever read transcripts or detailed descriptions of what goes on at high-level policy decisions—I’m sure it’s true of the Kennedy administration, I’m sure it’s true today in the Bush administration—the arguments, the self-absorption, the disagreements and the narcissism are incredible. And I’m sure the Gulf of Tonkin thing probably emerged as a compromise between lots of different people arguing as much as from a single, clear principle.
EM: Here’s something that has puzzled me about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. If you wanted to create a pretext to go to war, why go to the trouble of creating two pretexts?
AC: When you just need one?
EM: There weren’t two Maines. We needed only one Maine in order to go to war with Spain.
AC: That’s a good question: why did they need two incidents?
EM: Conspiracies imply that someone, somewhere, is in control of what’s going on. But history is the product of people out of control. What interests me in your work is your obsession with ideas and their unforeseen consequences.
AC: Once an idea gets legs, it has its own internal logic that tends to take over. Yeah. I’m a great believer in unintended consequences. I’m part of that generation that’s actually against the grand plans of McNamara’s generation… I mean, they genuinely believed that they could plan things, didn’t they?
AC: That idea was born out of an incredible optimism. But I was brought up in the ’70s during a period of economic crisis—a result of all those attempts in Britain and America and the Soviet Union to plan things. So I never shared that optimism. How could you believe that you could mathematically work out how to pacify a village? They genuinely believed that there was a sort of rational way of doing this. That rationality can be applied to create rational solutions. It’s the idea that you can apply a sort of technocratic rationality to a physical situation, believing you’re neutral. What’s fascinating about someone like McNamara is that he believed he was neutral. He didn’t really seem to think of himself as a political being. He was a manager. But the approach toward Iraq is different. The Bush administration are moralists, whereas McNamara didn’t see himself that way. He saw himself as solving a technical problem. Oddly enough, the person I have the most sympathy with in the face of all this is Henry Kissinger. When people say to me, “Oh yeah, The Power of Nightmares is a left-wing film,” I argue, “Well, how can this be a left-wing film when I make Henry Kissinger one of the heroes?” Kissinger had this completely amoral attitude. He did what was necessary in order to make the geopolitics of the world work. But that was a very interesting reaction to the chaos of the ’70s. You just do what’s necessary. But of course that didn’t help him when he went and bombed Cambodia. Have you thought about filming Kissinger?
EM: No, not really. I like tortured characters, and I don’t know how tortured Kissinger really is.
AC: I suspect you would never find out.
EM: McNamara is a more puzzling figure. It’s one of the things that makes him interesting. He’s difficult to dismiss as an out-and-out monster, even though undeniably many of the things he did were monstrous.
AC: That’s the traditional liberal way of dismissing bad people. He doesn’t think of himself as a monster, does he?
AC: And that’s actually what’s interesting. He knows that in some ways what he did could be considered monstrous, but he doesn’t think of himself as a monster. And that’s presumably the root of his torture and puzzlement about it. But no one thinks of themselves as really bad, do they?
EM: People prefer to be the hero of their life story rather than the villain.
EM: It’s that internal space, what people imagine themselves as doing.
AC: Yes, as opposed to what really is happening.
EM: I think that’s at the heart of what I really like about The Power of Nightmares.
II. NOTIONAL MOLES
EM: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sheer perversity of The Power of Nightmares.
EM: I’ll give you an example of a perverse argument— that Johnny Mercer brought down the World Trade Center. [The Power of Nightmares traces the odd career trajectory of Sayyed Qutb, a founder of Islamic fundamentalism, to a high school in Greeley, Colorado, and a senior prom where the students danced to Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”]
AC: The person I love best in the whole world is a sociologist from the late nineteenth century named Max Weber who believed that ideas have consequences. People have experiences out of which they form ideas. And those ideas have an effect on the world. It is true that a man listening to music back in 1949 had an experience that became one of the rivulets that ran into his formation of an idea. And that idea, in a very strange way, led people to destroy the World Trade Center. Now, of course, that’s the construction, and maybe people prefer to believe that history is much more complicated. Which, of course, it is. But the construction has a truth to it. It shows dramatically how particular experiences form particular ideas with particular consequences. Even though it doesn’t actually ever work out the way the person who had the idea intended. It’s perverse, but it’s also a way of dramatizing to people how ideas work, how history works—in a different way from all those boring history programs on American television that try to explain the world to you.They just make it dull.
EM: It’s not just dullness.There’s a received idea about how to do history.
AC: Well, what would you describe that as being?
EM: The balanced viewpoint. I’ve heard so many arguments about it. The Fog of War doesn’t provide a new generation—a generation born after the ’60s and ’70s— with a context. It doesn’t tell us what to think. But it allows you to get a glimpse of what this person was thinking. Even if it’s colored by a desire to make himself look better or to skew what he’d done or create some revisionist interpretation of the past, whatever, he’s still in that process of engaging his past—what he thought then and what he thinks now.
AC: Yes. And also, you judge him, like you judge anyone you listen to. I’m very suspicious of this idea of a balanced version of history. All history is a construction—often by the powerful. What I do is construct an imaginative interpretation of history to make people look again at what they think they know. I like to ask people, “Have you thought of this?” Like zooming up in a helicopter and looking at the ground, looking at the world in a new way. Because I think that so much of this interpretation of events is a deadening repetition agreed upon by certain people, a sort of collectivity of news reports. And often it’s completely wrong. But somehow, they all agree on it. People criticized my film by saying things like “Why aren’t you balanced? What aren’t you putting in the other views?” And my response was “What if the other view is wrong?” That’s the real problem of the balanced view—what’s called “perceived wisdom.” What if perceived wisdom’s wrong? What if—when you go and look at the evidence for sleeper cells in America—there doesn’t appear to be anything there? You know, that’s the difficult area. And so it becomes up to you to judge whether to go against perceived wisdom or not.
EM: And what if the people who deeply believe in something that isn’t there—like sleeper cells—they really believe it, for whatever reason? Ron Rosenbaum, a friend of mine, has written a number of articles on James Jesus Angleton and the CIA. [Angleton was the chief of counterintelligence during the height of the Cold War.]
AC: Oh, yes.
EM: He talked about “notional moles” in the article. And the notional mole—according to Rosenbaum—is that you make the other side believe that you’ve planted a mole in their midst without ever having actually planted a mole.This is very much an Adam Curtis idea. You drive them insane.
AC: Because they’re looking for something that doesn’t actually exist.
AC: Well, that’s what I was trying to do.What I’m trying to say to people is “Look, you do face a terrorist threat, as is obvious from the attacks on America and more recently on my country. But you’re looking in the wrong place. You’ve created this sort of phantom enemy, which is a disorganized network, when in fact what you’re actually facing is an idea that springs up all over the place.” You’ve created a notional enemy that’s driving you mad looking for it, when in fact it’s something else entirely. And that’s when I went back and tried to explain the ideas. I thought that was much more important for people to understand. Because when something that doesn’t exist becomes perceived wisdom, people tend to go slightly bonkers.That’s sort of the mood of our times. I like the idea of a notional mole; it’s good. Because no one ever found one, did they?
EM: No. And they still don’t know to this day whether—
AC: There really was a real mole?
EM: Whether the mole was notional or real.
AC: Because, of course, that might be another trick as well. You release a piece of information through the real mole to say—Well, we think it’s a notional mole.
EM: But in The Power of Nightmares, it’s not a notional mole planted by the enemy.
AC: No, we created it ourselves.
EM: Yes. It’s a form of self-fertilization, parthenogenesis.
AC: To be honest, the neoconservatives are their own worst enemy.They’ve created something out of their own fevered imagination, which was borne out of the Cold War. That’s one of the great unexamined areas—how recently the Cold War ended and how so many of our institutions and our mind set and everything is still trapped in that. And that’s also true of a lot of journalists—I mean,I’m not so sure in America,but in my country, a lot of the senior journalists had a very good Cold War and still have that mentality as well. They hang on to it. You know, that’s why they kept on thinking there were hidden things out there in Iraq. I don’t think they made it up; I think they genuinely believed it in Iraq. Because that’s what the Soviets were like.They hid these things.
EM: It’s far more frightening than the idea that they were knowingly peddling lies. The more frightening version is they truly believed in all of it.
AC: I think that’s true.And it was after that sort of selfcreated fantasy that they could then go to war. I mean, that’s weird, isn’t it?
EM: They had to go to war because if their fantasies are true, it would be horribly irresponsible not to go to war. Munich all over again.
AC: You get trapped by this. Trapped by a false idea. That’s what I was trying to describe in The Power of Nightmares. Once you get trapped by your imagination, you think the worst, and therefore you have to plan for the worst. It becomes a self-fulfilling thing.
EM: Take historical analogies. I believe that historical analogies are always wrong. This is a long discussion, but to me, the most dangerous thing about Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich is not the fact that Munich happened and it led to further Nazi aggression and so on and so forth, but that the example of Munich has been used to support thousands upon thousands of bad policies and inappropriate decisions. [Former U.S. Air Force General Curtis] LeMay called JFK’s recommendation for a “quarantine” (that is, a blockade) in the Cuban Missile Crisis “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” Would nuclear war have been a better alternative? But nuclear war was averted by Kennedy’s policies. And thirty years later the Soviet Union collapsed without the need for nuclear war. Was LeMay right? I don’t think so. But again, the example of Munich was invoked to justify the invasion of Iraq. Appeasing Saddam, appeasing Hitler. The use of the Munich analogy does not clarify; it obscures. History is like the weather. Themes do repeat themselves but never in the same way. And analogies became rhetorical flourishes and sad ex post facto justifications rather than explanations. In the end, they explain nothing.
AC: That’s right. Last night on television someone who was pro–the Iraq war was saying that the alliance between the insurgents in Iraq and the foreign fighters is the equivalent of the Nazi-Soviet pact and that that’s what we’re really fighting against. It’s all so weird. That the men who sit in neon-lit rooms with very nicely done tables and who question you and tell you things, are actually weird.
EM: Yeah. Well, as we all know, the banal and the weird are not incompatible.
AC: That’s the whole point—that’s what’s so fascinating about our time. The banal and the weird are one and the same thing.
EM: Yes. They hold hands.