Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lydon B. Johnson and chief architect of the Vietnam War, once likened his wartime experience to being in a kind of fog. “What the fog of war means,” he said, “is that war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate — and we kill people unnecessarily.”
The director Errol Morris, best known for his films “The Thin Blue Line” and “A Brief History of Time,” used that statement to give his documentary about McNamara its title. In an interview, Morris said, “I look at the McNamara story as ‘the fog of war ate my homework’ excuse. After all, if war is so complex, then no one is responsible.”
No doubt Morris would agree that the same fog has now crept in and enveloped Iraq, one year after the U.S. withdrew from that theatre.
The war in Iraq started with Operation Shock and Awe but ended with a fizzle, and, some would argue, as an epic exercise in human futility — neither victory nor defeat was clear. Instead, with the exit of the last American troops, the final meaning of the war is muddled. In its wake, the war left us with more questions than answers:
Is this the victory we had longed for since Vietnam? Is this all we could muster after we invaded and occupied Iraq for nine years, supposedly to find weapons of mass destruction? Is Iraq now truly a free and sovereign nation, given the unending conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims there? And even if it is, was it worth the squandering of American blood and treasures, not to mention the killing of Iraqi civilians as “collateral damage”? Why liberate Iraq and not, say, North Korea or Syria, two countries that actually possess weapons of mass destruction? Why freedom and sovereignty for Iraq, if that was truly our purpose, and not, say, Tibet or Cuba? And if our national interest was at stake, have we protected that interest now that we have spilled precious blood and depleted our national treasury? Why, indeed, Iraq?
Historians will bicker over the answers but this much is certain: the war in Iraq claimed 4,487 American lives, and left another 32,226 Americans wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. According to Iraqbodycount.org, the number of Iraqi casualties ranges between 103,000 and 114,000 during the U.S. occupation. The Congressional Research Service has estimated the cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at around $806 billion dollars, while President Obama has said the cost of the Iraq war is over $1 trillion.
We closed a chapter in Iraq but the fog of war hasn’t lifted. Instead one is left with an unsettling feeling, a bitterness in the mouth. We lost more than we hoped to gain. It’s not defeat exactly, but in an age of perpetual war, it’s clearly no victory. And in the end, if there’s no clear objective, then isn’t killing people objectionable and unnecessary?
But as the fog drifts about, it’s as if there is a collective will to forget in this country. Let’s forget Abu Ghraib, where we tortured and sexually humiliated our captives. Let’s forget about the weapons of mass destruction, since we couldn’t find any. Let’s forget Haditha, where a My Lai-style massacre was perpetrated by our drunken soldiers. Let’s forget waterboarding being condoned and supported by politicians. Let’s forget extraordinary rendition, where we kidnapped thousands of world citizens and flew them directly to secret prisons for interrogation. Let’s forget that there’s still a military prison at Guantánamo where political prisoners are being kept without due process, which has led to suicides. Let’s forget the 2 million displaced Iraqi refugees who continue to subsist in neighboring countries or are displaced in their own.
It is worth noting that right after the war in Iraq drew to an end, Congress passed a defense budget of a whopping $662 billion with flying colors, $16 billion more than President Obama expected. In 2012 that number increased to $707.5 billion. No doubt much is needed for the new drone wars, with assassination a more assured strategy for success than ground invasion.
There was no fighting to speak of in a Congress known for its bickering and quarrels. There was no controversy over spending that amount of money among elected officials otherwise known for their push to cut basic services. The war industrial complex needs to be fed. Victory may no longer be needed in an era when wars are fought not to be won or lost, but under the pretext of keeping America safe.
Morris’ documentary about McNamara has a subtitle: “Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” One of them is: “Believing and seeing are both often wrong.” What that means to McNamara is that doing the right thing turned out to be an enormous error. Too bad that lesson hasn’t sunk in. Americans were duped into invading Iraq. And no one has yet taken responsibility for America’s most disastrous mistake of the 21st century — invading a country that did not attack us and that did not pose any real threat to the American people.
Alas, the violent deeds and aggression of empires seem to depend proportionally on the complacency, and therefore tacit approval, of their citizenry. And when a society hides behind the apparatus of bellicose foreign policies, allowing its government almost unchecked power for pre-emptive strikes and invasions, the only logical outcome is injustice and cruelty; and so the fog of war can only thicken with the years.