The Fog of War

Saw the documentary The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. I’ve been meaning to see this since my trip to Viet Nam. When I was Hanoi, this was playing in the middle of the morning on the movie channel in my hotel, and I was tempted to stay in and watch it, since I realized it would help me understand Viet Nam and the war.

McNamara was Secretary of Defense, not only during the Viet Nam War. but also the Cuban Missile Crisis, and during World War II he was an officer on the staff of the general who ordered the fire-bombing of Japan. This documentary consists largely of him talking — organized around eleven “lessons” — supplemented with audiotapes of conversations (phone and meetings) of McNamara, Johnson, and others, and historic news footage.

It’s impressive to hear from someone who was not only involved in such major events, but went back later to find out more about what they didn’t know at the time, and has reflected on what he learned and reconsidered what they decided at the time. Some of the things that I either hadn’t known or hadn’t fully understood that I learned from this documentary:

  • In WWII the US firebombed 67 cities in Japan, killing 100,000 civilians in Tokyo in one night. McNamara says that they had bombers that flew low enough to be hit by anti-aircraft fire. Then B-29s flew higher, but weren’t accurate. So the general decided that fire-bombing from low altitudes would be most efficient.
    • he quotes someone — this same general, I think — as saying that, if we had lost the war, they would have been prosecuted as war criminals.
  • During the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were already warheads in Cuba, unknown to the US. McNamara later met Castro and asked if he would have advised Kruschev to use them, and he said he had. McNamara exclaimed that that would have resulted in the destruction of Cuba, and Castro said he was willing to do that. After the crisis, a US general recommended that we go in and bomb Cuba anyway, on the grounds that we would have do so sooner or later, so better sooner. What even McNamara didn’t know, but Castro did, was that we had already tried to assassinate Castro, twice.
    • One of McNamara’s lessons here is: “Empathize with your enemy.” But how can the decision-makers empathize, and predict how the other side will react, when they don’t know what the CIA is up to?
    • Another is “Rationality will not save us” — Castro was definitely not being “rational.”
    • Another lesson is: “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.”
    • He says that this is the closest we have ever come to nuclear war. I was in grade school at the time and I remember the tension, and everyone’s belief that we were on the verge of nuclear war, day by day, waiting.
  • Under Kennedy, McNamara announced that we would reduce the number of US advisors in Viet Nam (predecessors to the fighting force) and had begun the reductions. Johnson countermanded this decision.
  • I had heard that the Tonkin Bay incident, which caused the US to bomb North Viet Nam and resulted in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving Johnson the power to conduct the war, had never happened. We hear McNamara’s analysis, and the real-time audiotapes of the inquiry, as people in Washington try to figure out whether there was a torpedo attack on the US ship. We hear McNamara ask the captain if he’s sure there was an attack, and the captain says, “I’m sure — I think.” On that basis, we escalated the war. The evidence was sonar readings, and the interpretation of the sonar crew, but in rough water there’s a lot of noise on sonar.
    • Again — “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.” The question then is — what if you’re wrong?
  • McNamara makes it clear that people in Washington had great difficulty figuring out what was going on in Viet Nam, and how to proceed. He wanted the US to pull out. Johnson too felt that the US had no good choices, that the whole situation was a mess. But Johnson insisted that we couldn’t leave. McNamara resigned; not long after that, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. At this point, only half the US soldiers who would die in the war had died.
  • The documentary repeatedly, graphically emphasizes the US belief in the “domino theory.” When I was in Viet Nam, I wondered at our strong insistence on this. When in 1992 (I think) McNamara met the former North Vietnamese foreign minister, the foreign minister exclaimed that the US didn’t know Vietnamese history; theirs is a history of a thousand years of fighting for their independence from China, then from France. So they were never going to let either China or the Soviet Union rule them, and they assumed that we wanted to colonize them as France had. And that is indeed the message that I got from the history museums in Saigon and Hanoi: the long history of fighting foreign domination from all sides, especially China; the bitterness at the French domination; and the US as yet another colonial power.
    • What do we not know about Iraqi history? And how it leads them to think about us? In Rory Stewart’s book, The Prince of Marshes, he talks about driving into Nasiryah, past a statue commemorating a 1920s Iraqi uprising against the British, showing an Iraqi shooting a British soldier in the back of the head.

McNamara is asked why he didn’t publicly oppose Johnson after he left the administration, and whether he feels guilty. He refused to answer both these questions.

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