Unlearned Vietnam lessons in Iraq

“We have declared war on tyranny and aggression.”

—Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

“We will rid the world of evildoers”

—George W. Bush, 2001

While much has been said about Michael Moore’s documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, readers may want to study a different documentary to help determine whether our invasion of Iraq was justified.

Errol Morris’ riveting 2003 film, The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, provides the opportunity to re-examine the reasons for waging pre-emptive and preventive wars.

McNamara was Secretary of Defense under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from 1961 to 1967. He oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War from a few thousand “military advisers” to more than 500,000 combat troops.

In the movie, Johnson expressed concerns to McNamara in early 1964 that the U.S. was “losing the war” in Vietnam, about three months after Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson feared if the Soviet-and-Chinese-backed North Vietnamese controlled the country, communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia, and ultimately threaten democracy around the world.

Resembling Johnson’s efforts to stop the spread of communism, Bush is attempting to stop the spread of terrorism.

Even though Kennedy and McNamara forged a plan in 1963 to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam by the end of 1965, Johnson quashed the plan in February 1964. Referring to the period when he was vice president under Kennedy, Johnson said to McNamara: “I always thought it was foolish of you to make any statements about withdrawing. …But you and the President thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.”

Despite Johnson’s sentiments about losing, and McNamara’s assessment that “we don’t know what is going on out there,” both decided to escalate the war to prevent the spread of communism. Their decision ultimately cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and 3.4 million Vietnamese.

Perhaps the most compelling lesson McNamara advocated in the documentary is to “be prepared to re-examine your reasoning” for going to war. New information may undermine previous beliefs, and understanding of the enemy.

“If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we better re-examine our reasoning,” McNamara said in 2001.

“If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there! None of our allies supported us!”

Supporters of the Iraq war and President Bush are likely to assert that Great Britain is an ally with similar values that supported our actions in Iraq.

Detractors of the war, such as myself, counter that most of our allies opposed our actions in Iraq, and that Bush’s efforts have actually created more terrorists, and a rallying point for their deeds for decades to come.

Newly revealed reports about America’s and Britain’s intelligence failures concerning the exact threat Iraq posed before the invasion, leads us to conclude that more data and information was needed, and belief and seeing are often wrong—lessons six and seven from McNamara’s life.

Like Iraq, the escalation of the war in Vietnam was also the result of misinterpretation of information. Specifically, the mistaken perception that on Aug. 4, 1964, a second torpedo attack within three days had taken place against a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Tonkin. That attack never happened. As a result, Johnson believed the North Vietnamese wanted to escalate the conflict, and “would not stop short of winning. …We were wrong,” McNamara said about the second attack and their intentions.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his case for war in January 2003 at the United Nations, Powell warned members of Iraq’s capability of inflicting mass destruction on its neighbors, and intents to acquire nuclear weapons. Many compared Powell’s presentation to Kennedy’s during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The difference, of course, is that Kennedy’s intelligence was correct, Bush and Powell’s was, at least, flawed.

The 9/11 Commission’s report also attributed U.S. intelligence failures about Iraq to “groupthink,” which is the seeking of consensus, and avoidance of disagreement by members of a group. Researchers also implicated groupthink as a major factor for Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, despite intelligence experts’ warnings.

McNamara asserted that our ability to empathize with the Soviet Union and Cuba during the missile crisis, enabled all sides to claim victory. The result was prevention of a nuclear war.

The ability to empathize with the enemy is lesson No. 1 from McNamara’s life.

In the case of Vietnam, Johnson and McNamara viewed Vietnam as an extension of the Cold War. McNamara said the North Vietnamese viewed the conflict as a civil war, and the U.S. as imperialists. Our inability to empathize with the North Vietnamese—to realize they thought of us as imperialists—means we failed lesson one in Vietnam.

Reports from Iraq suggest the insurgents that attack our troops on a daily basis, also view us as imperialists. Have we failed lesson one, again?

In a meeting 30 years after McNamara was defense secretary, North Vietnam’s former foreign minister lectured McNamara that he must have never read a history book about Vietnam. If McNamara had, the foreign minister said McNamara would have known the Vietnamese weren’t pawns of the Soviets or Chinese.

Similarly, Bush failed to understand the 9/11 terrorists’ history, motives and goals for attacking us. The terrorists wanted to avenge for our military presence in Saudi Arabia, and prompt us to withdraw our troops from the region. The 9/11 terrorists, including Usama Bin Ladin, believed the U.S. was an infidel occupying holy land.

However, withdrawal is not likely due to our dependence on Saudi oil for energy, the Saudis’ connections to the Bush family, and the Saudis’ huge investments in the United States, which comprise about 6 percent of Wall Street investments or approximately $700 billion.

Ironically, the primary source of funding for the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi donors. Referring to Iraq, the 9/11 Commission report reads: “Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks on the United States.”

Bush has apparently confused the war on terror with an invasion of a country that even many of his supporters now reluctantly acknowledge, posed no imminent threat. Bush also failed to insist on additional and better intelligence before waging his war.

McNamara proposed that the amount of death and destruction during war should be proportional to the objectives. There were no clear objectives in Vietnam, other than to stop the spread of communism.

Similarly, Bush’s objective is to confront terrorism on distant lands before it spreads to our shores.

Because the objectives in Vietnam were not clear, McNamara suggests the amount of death and destruction was not proportional. The question we, and Bush, should answer is whether the number of Americans, Iraqis, and others that have died, is proportional to the objective?

And what is the real objective?

Is the objective to stop terrorism? Is it to secure oil and natural gas supplies in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other regions near there? Is it to plant the seeds of democracy and freedom in the Middle East? Is it because former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to kill Bush’s father? Is it a combination of those factors? Or is the objective something else?

The movie reveals McNamara’s shocking revelation concerning proportionality as it applies to his involvement in fire bombing Japan during World War II. McNamara analyzed bombing mission data, and recommended to commanders how to maximize efficiency to “weaken the adversary.”

Regarded as a “just” war, the U.S. fire bombed 67 Japanese cities before dropping two atomic bombs on the country in August 1945.

The consequence was 50 to 90 percent of the citizens in those cities were killed, and an equal percentage of the structures were destroyed. McNamara said in one night, during the bombing of Tokyo, more than 100,0

00 Japanese civilians—men, women and children, were burned to death.

The commander who ordered the fire bombing was General Curtis LeMay. McNamara asserted: “LeMay said: ‘If we lost the war, we’d all been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. “LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral, if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” McNamara said.

We should ask the same questions of Bush. Are our actions in Iraq proportional to the objective? Will Bush have similar revelations about his involvement in Iraq when he reaches McNamara’s age, which is presently 87?

The fire bombing of Japan and McNamara’s revelation demonstrate that criminal behavior can evolve from both “just” and “unjust” wars. Conversely, heroes may also be made from all types of wars. How will history judge Bush?

McNamara’s last lesson indicates that we cannot change human nature. We must accept that we all make mistakes because of the wrong combinations of rationality, emotions and beliefs.

In other words, the fog of war is humans’ inability to understand all the factors and variables of war that will likely result in mistakes, which will needlessly cost the lives of many people, and cause senseless destruction of property.

Therefore, McNamara’s lessons must be learned to avoid meaningless death and destruction, and to assure that we advance to the next level of civilization.

Like Johnson, Bush has colossally failed to learn those lessons, which has entrenched us in a tragic quagmire with no end in sight.

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