Lost in the Fog
McNamara, one of the “best and the brightest” technocrats
behind the escalation of the Vietnam War, eventually came
to regret his actions. But his public contrition, which included
a book and a series of interviews for the documentary The
Fog of War, were greeted with derision.
McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of
his countrymen,” editorialized The New York Times in
1995. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment
hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry,
dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose.
What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology
and stale tears, three decades late.”
McNamara’s change of heart came 58,000 American and 2,000,000
Vietnamese lives too late. If the dead could speak, surely
they would ask: Why couldn’t you see then what you understand
so clearly now? Why didn’t you listen to the millions of experts,
journalists and ordinary Americans who knew that death and
defeat would be the only outcome?
Though Errol Morris’ film served as ipso facto indictment,
its title was yet a kind of justification. There is no “fog
of war.” There is only hubris, stubbornness, and the psychological
compartmentalization that allows a man to sign papers that
will lead others to die before going home to play with his
McNamara is dead. Barack Obama is his successor.
Some call McNamara’s life tragic. Tragedy-inducing is closer
to the truth. Yes, he suffered guilt in his later years. “He
wore the expression of a haunted man,” wrote the author of
his Times obit. “He could be seen in the streets of
Washington—stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind—walking
to and from his office a few blocks from the White House,
wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.” But
the men and women and boys and girls blown up by bombs and
mines and impaled by bullets and maimed in countless ways
deserve more vengeance than a pair of ratty Nikes. Neither
McNamara nor LBJ nor the millions of Americans who were for
the war merit understanding, much less sympathy.
Now Obama is following the same doomed journey.
must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us
through their eyes,” McNamara warned long after the fact,
speaking of “America’s enemies” but really just about people—people
who live in other countries. People whose countries possess
reserves of natural gas (Vietnam) or oil (Iraq) or are situated
between energy reserves and deep-sea ports where oil tankers
dock (Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Why can’t President Obama imagine himself living in a poor
village in Pakistan? Why can’t he feel the anger and contempt
felt by Pakistanis who hear pilotless drone planes buzzing
overhead, firing missiles willy-nilly at civilians and guerrilla
fighters alike, dispatched by a distant enemy too cowardly
to put live soldiers and pilots in harm’s way?
burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo—men, women
and children,” McNamara said. “LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the
war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And
I think he’s right. He—and I’d say I—were behaving as war
criminals.” Nine hundred thousand Japanese civilians died
At least Japan started the war. What of Afghanistan and Iraq,
where approximately 2,000,000 civilians have been killed by
U.S. forces? Neither country attacked us. Shouldn’t Bush,
Rumsfeld and the rest be prosecuted as war criminals? Why
not Obama? After all, Obama is leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq
after the war there is supposedly coming to an end. He’s escalating
the unjustifiable, unwinnable tragedy in Afghanistan—there
are 68,000 U.S. troops there now, probably going up to 100,000
by next year—while spreading the conflict into Pakistan.
no mistake, the international community is not winning in
Afghanistan,” concluded the Atlantic Council in 2008. Things
have only gotten worse as U.S. troop presence has increased:
more violence, more drugs, less reconstruction.
Like McNamara, Obama doesn’t understand a basic truth: You
can’t successfully manage an inherently doomed premise. Colonialism
is dead. Occupiers will never enjoy peace. Neither the Afghans
nor the Iraqis nor the Pakistanis will rest until we withdraw
our forces. The only success we will find is in accepting
defeat sooner rather than later.
went wrong [in Vietnam] was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation
of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,”
McNamara said in his Berkeley oral history. Today’s domino
theory is Bush’s (now Obama’s) clash of civilizations, the
argument that unless we fight them “there” we will have to
fight them here. Afghanistan and Iraq don’t present security
threats to the United States. The presence of U.S. troops
and drone planes, on the other hand . . .
In fairness to McNamara, it only took two years for him to
call to an end of the bombing of North Vietnam. By 1966 he
was advising LBJ to start pulling back. But, like a gambler
trying to recoup and justify his losses, the president kept
doubling down. “We didn’t know our opposition,” concluded
McNamara. “So the first lesson is know your opponents. I want
to suggest to you that we don’t know our potential opponents
Actually, it’s worse than that. Then, like now, we don’t have
opponents. We create them.
Rall, President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists,
is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and
Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?