IN A NEWLY RELEASED documentary, "The Fog of War," former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara now admits that "we were wrong" about that tragic military conflict. His remorseless confession should be a cautionary tale about the war in Iraq.
The problem, says McNamara, who presided over the Vietnam War for seven years, is that American leaders failed to see the world through the eyes of the Vietnamese, who had just defeated the French in 1954 in the Indochina War and viewed the United States as the next colonial power they needed to fight to gain national independence.
American officials, he explains, blinded themselves by viewing the world through the limited lens of the Cold War. If communists ended up ruling Vietnam, they reasoned, other Asian countries would fall like dominoes.
What our leaders willfully ignored, he now admits, is that Vietnam and China had been enemies for more than a thousand years, that the United States was intervening in a civil war and that the Vietnamese people would never stop fighting a foreign occupation, whatever the cost.
Yet such knowledge was common currency in the U.S. anti-war movement. One reason is that we read investigative journalists such as I.F. Stone or Robert Scheer, who offered accurate information and alternative perspectives. Another reason is that at college campus teach-ins, experts on Southeast Asia taught us about the history of that region. Nevertheless, the views of Cold War hawks dominated the media's uncritical coverage of the supposed threat posed by Vietnam.
Even if they chose not to understand Vietnam, many in the government -- including McNamara and President Lyndon B. Johnson -- knew that the war could not be won. Once immersed in a land war, however, no sitting president was willing to lose the war on his watch.
Even after he resigned in 1968, McNamara never spoke out against the war, which might have saved tens of thousands of lives and influenced the majority of Americans who still believed that our country was fighting for freedom. It was only later, in the early 1970s, that an increasingly skeptical public began to question the cascading lies that had kept them in ignorance.
McNamara blames the "fog of war" for the mistakes and misperceptions that led to and sustained the war in Vietnam. But it was not the fog of war that killed 58,000 American soldiers and 3 million Vietnamese people. It was the fog of power that kept senior officials from admitting they were wrong.
Today, we are once again engaged in a war halfway around the world. Unlike the Vietnam War years, however, we already have a slew of magazine articles, credible studies and best-selling books that have dissected and analyzed the exaggerated evidence and persistent propaganda that led us to invade and occupy Iraq. In an eerie echo of McNamara's words, David Kay, the government's leading weapons inspector, has already said "we were all wrong" about the intelligence that persuaded the American public to support a war in Iraq.
What has not received sufficient airing, however, is the cultural and historical ignorance in which the Bush administration planned the war in Iraq.
Ask the Middle East experts and scholars who repeatedly tried to warn Pentagon war planners that the Iraqi people, who forcibly ended Britain's occupation of their lands in 1922, would view any Western nation's intervention as another colonial power's grab for their oil.
These experts also tried to communicate the complexity of the region's ethnic, religious and tribal loyalties, but were repeatedly rebuffed by war planners, whose willful ignorance led them to believe that American soldiers would be greeted with flowers and kisses.
I predict that future historians will document how a group of hubristic ideologues hijacked the nation to gain control over Iraq's oil, the precondition for fulfilling their dream of uncontested American global power. Bush administration officials, they will explain, planned to install a puppet government that would allow American bases and U.S. control over the flow of oil. They didn't anticipate -- or want -- a demand for democracy by a Shiite majority hostile to an American presence in Iraq.
Future historians will also wonder why the American public believed Iraq had WMDs or ties with al Qaeda.
The answer will be the same as it was in the 1960s: Because the government effectively manipulated legitimate fears -- of communism then, terrorism now -- and because we Americans, living in the greatest democracy on Earth, justifiably believed that our elected leaders wouldn't lie to us.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle