Like most american men my age, I spent several years of my early adulthood dealing with Vietnam. My father was a committed supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and followed his hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into opposition to our nation's involvement in Vietnam's civil war. Following my dad's intellectual example as always, I went off to college an opponent of a war I presumed would be long over by the time I graduated. But it was still there to greet me as I approached commencement ceremonies in the Kent State/Cambodia spring of 1970.
Along with the other young men of my generation, I participated in the first Vietnam draft lottery in the fall of 1969. The lottery was devised as a strategy by the Nixon administration to stanch the relentless waves of antiwar protests that had swept the nation since 1967 and succeeded in driving Lyndon Johnson from the White House even though he was eligible for another term as president. The Nixonians figured that by staging a lottery they could let some air out of the antiwar movement's expanding balloon. Some of the anxious young men whose opposition to the war was more personal than philosophical would be protected by high draft numbers, thereby diminishing their zeal for opposing the war. The tactic might have worked better had projections not indicated that eighty-five percent of the draft numbers would be called.
Since my number was seven, the lottery offered me no hope whatsover of escape. I was ordered to a pre-induction mental and physical examination two months before my graduation date. With my student deferment expiring, my college diploma seemed little more than a one-way ticket to Vietnam. Throughout my last three years in college, I marched in antiwar rallies. In 1968, not yet old enough to vote but old enough to be drafted if I dropped out of school, I worked in the campaign of antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and in the equally unsuccessful campaign of an antiwar congressional candidate. I was part of a student group that secured a meeting with Indiana Senator Birch Bayh to urge him into a more critical stance of our policies in Vietnam. People today forget how compromised congressional Democrats were by Johnson's prosecution of the war and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey's Hamlet-like refusal to denounce it. They sometimes forget that Nixon ran as a "peace" candidate.
But all these formal and informal political activities did nothing to protect me from being drafted into a war I found morally offensive. As graduation loomed, I was all alone in my struggle with the draft. Or at least I was alone in my personal resistance. I was never represented by legal counsel. I had no connections with anyone of influence who might have been able to pull strings on my behalf. On the other hand, I had plenty of intellectual and spiritual allies in the fight writ large. Draft counseling centers sprang up in every major city to supply draft resisters with advice about options and with copies of selective service legislation and regulations. And like thousands of others conducting their own struggle against the draft, like other young men preponderantly from my class and race, I became an expert on the system's procedures and on my rights within the system.
I HAVE ELSEWHERE DESCRIBED THE FUNDAMENTAL strategy of the draft resistance movement as akin to the delay game basketball coaches sometimes employed against superior opponents in the days before the shot clock. The object was not to score but to keep the ball so that the other team couldn't beat you. Like others, I learned when and how to file appeals that would buy maximum periods of changes of venue. I knew that taking certain kinds of jobs allowed one to request deferments even though those deferments were no longer being granted. For three years after college, I played this delay game relentlessly. I had jobs to pay the rent, but I lived to fight the draft.
And I am proud of it.
And, like thousands of others who were equally determined and equally resourceful in turning the system on itself, I was eventually successful. Nixon sustained the war far longer than was conscionable, but over time the nation's political nausea with the War in Vietnam meant that not even Nixon could sustain it. He pulled the troops out, and those of us who fought the draft with adequate stubbornness and guile were spared having to participate in something we abhorred.
IN THE LONG YEARS SINCE THE end of the War in Vietnam, a kind of fog has settled over the actions of the war resisters. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton tried to fudge his own resistance activities with regard to the draft. Al Gore largely dodged the issue by pointing to his fleeting service as a military journalist. Now John Kerry has made his military heroism a central element in his campaign. Thirty years on, and we haven't put Vietnam behind us. Nor should we. But like Clinton and Gore before him, Kerry gets dodgy when talk turns to his antiwar activities, despite the fact that his leadership role in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War first brought him to the national stage. George W Bush doesn't want to admit that he benefited from family connections to seek sanctuary from Vietnam in the National Guard. And Kerry equivocates about his disgust with the war having been great enough that he was ashamed of the honors he won for bravery on the battlefield. He ought not be ashamed. But to truly understand America’s role in Vietnam, one has to understand that a brave man like Kerry was ashamed.
The men of the Vietnam generation have much to be proud of, and they ought to embrace it. Too many men gave their lives for a war they could never have won. Men fought and survived physically but carry emotional scars to this day. Those who served, like Kerry, did so because they thought they ought to or did so because they couldn't figure out how not to. Those who marched in demonstrations and resisted the draft were centrally responsible for changing the nation's attitude about an unjustifiable war.
These musings about the Vietnam War are sadly pertinent to the contemporary American political landscape, to the current presidential campaign because of Republican insinuations about the exact nature of Kerry's Navy service record and subsequent antiwar stance and because of Democratic complaints about the murkiness surrounding President Bush's service in the National Guard. They are also relevant because, with every passing day, analogies to Vietnam are impossible to avoid as we contemplate America's involvement in Iraq. For enlightenment on war in general, we should look at Errol Morris's Oscar-winning 2003 documentary, The Fog of War.
The Fog of War is a feature-length interview with Robert S. McNamara, illustrated as McNamara talks with images from the events he describes and analyzes. Best known as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1967, McNamara was widely vilified as the architect of America's Vietnam disaster. Early in the film, he claims to remember, at age two in 1918, Armistice Day, the end of World War I’s "war to end all wars." As McNamara talks, Morris overlays footage of Woodrow Wilson addressing cheering throngs, many wearing masks to protect themselves from that year's virulent flu epidemic. Morris told me in a conversation we had about his film that he sees the masks "as a chilling harbinger of all the wars to come," all the wars WWI did not end after all, particularly the wars in which Robert McNamara would play such a central part. From McNamara's life, Morris' film draws sundry pointed lessons applicable to our current military policy in the Middle East.
Though The Fog of War covers McNamera’s life from childhood, though his youthful appointment as a business professor, to his resignation/firing (he reached the decision that he should resign simultaneously with Johnson's decision to replace him) as Defense Secretary at age 51, most of the film focuses on three events: McNamara's WWII service as an aide to air force General Curtis LeMay, McNamara's involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his role as advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson at pivotal moments early in the Vietnam War.
MCNAMARA WAS A KEY MEMBER OF THE LeMay staff during the deadly fire-bombing raids over Japan in 1945. Data-cruncher that he was, McNamara assisted LeMay in determining how to do the maximum damage per sortie. And they did damage that some of us never knew and few of us can comfortably face. One night in March of 1945 American bombers burned to death 100,000 civilians in Tokyo. And though that was the worst of it, that night was hardly the end of it. The fire-bombing eventually killed more than 50 percent of the residents (and in some places up to 90 percent) in 67 Japanese cities, cities the size of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Cleveland included. The firebombing was so effectively devastating that LeMay thought the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary. LeMay also told McNamara that were they to lose the war, he and his staff would be tried as war criminals. From this experience McNamara had deduced the principle "proportionality should be a guideline in war." How many civilians is it acceptable to kill in order to win a war?
McNamara was perpetually at John Kennedy's side during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the world facing imminent atomic war, Kennedy received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev, one saying that the Soviets would pull its nuclear arms out of Cuba if JFK would promise not to invade Cuba, the other listing other more extensive demands. A former diplomat to Russia advised Kennedy to agree to the first offer and ignore the demands of the second. That's not exactly what Kennedy did, though McNamara says it is. Nonetheless, there is obvious merit in the principle he extracts from this experience: "empathize with your enemy." This is a lesson the American military has been slow to learn. In Vietnam our leaders stated for public consumption that Asians valued human life less than we did. As I write, we are learning the horror of American soldiers sexually humiliating Iraqis (and photographing themselves doing it) in prisons once run by Saddam Hussein. The white-hot fires of outrage throughout the Muslim world are the price of our appalling failure to see our enemy as human beings.
McNamara relates alarming facts about our faulty intelligence during the missile crisis. Kennedy and his advisors thought the missiles in Cuba had yet to be fitted with warheads. Thus, at LeMay's urging, they seriously contemplated a massive air, sea, and land assault to destroy the missiles before they could be armed. But they were wrong. The missiles were fully operational and capable of killing ninety million Americans. There was a rational argument for decisive military action, but had we attacked, human civilization might have been destroyed. "We lucked out," McNamara argues and announces his principle "rationality will not save us." Testimony from inside the Bush White House calls into question whether the president and his cabinet ever really believed in the existence of Saddam's purported "weapons of mass destruction," but our subsequent failure to find them should give us grave pause before we make war next time. In Iraq what wasn't there couldn't hurt us. In Cuba, what wasn't supposed to be there could have precipitated Armageddon. What if Kennedy had surrendered to LeMay's bellicosity? Saddam certainly didn't hesitate to launch Scuds into Israel in the first Gulf War. What if Saddam had actually developed armed nuclear missiles? Might invasion of Iraq have resulted in the destruction of Tel Aviv?
A POPULAR NOTION IN THE 1960s WAS THAT McNamara was the cabinet hawk who urged first Kennedy and then Johnson ever deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. "McNamara's War" the press sometimes called Vietnam. But McNamara claims that he saw the problems with military action in Vietnam from the very first stages of the war, advised Kennedy to begin withdrawing troops in 1963, and developed a plan that Kennedy approved to remove all American soldiers by 1965. When Morris asks point blank, then, who was responsible for Vietnam, McNamara finally concedes with obvious anguish that it was Johnson. McNamara's version of his role in Vietnam is hotly disputed by some who have seen this movie. And this despite the fact that Morris has discovered and includes a taped conversation in the Oval Office between McNamara and JFK on October 2, 1963, and another between McNamara and LBJ on February 25, 1964, that definitively seem to substantiate McNamara's account.
Asked about those who think he lets McNamara off too easy on this point—that McNamara was an enabler at best and an active collaborator or even instigator at worst—Morris says that he has listened to all the tapes that are available and believes they show that McNamara is telling the truth. "People have also claimed McNamara exaggerated his World War II record," Morris told me, "but the documents I examined bear him out."
Some viewers of this film have objected to what they see as a sympathetic portrayal of a man who was involved in decisions that killed millions of people. Nearly three and a half million Vietnamese died in a war McNamara supervised and now states without a single qualification that we never had a chance of winning. Over 58,000 American soldiers were killed, countless others maimed for life. Yet McNamara did not resign to protest Johnson's decisions and never spoke against the war after he left office, not even when Richard Nixon reneged on his campaign promise of peace, rained more bombs on North Vietnam than were dropped in World War II and expanded the war across the border into Cambodia. One wonders if thirty years from now Secretary of State Colin Powell will be as candid in his assessments of Iraq as McNamara is now about Vietnam.
Errol Morris and I were born exactly three weeks apart. Like me, he protested against the war in the 1960s and, like me, he says he hasn't changed his attitude about Vietnam "one whit. I thought it was appalling then; it remains appalling to me now." So why the sympathetic portrait of McNamara? "I don't at all think that McNamara was blameless," Morris says. "But I am moved by his struggle. He is unusual among political figures in his willingness to look back over his life and examine his actions. Though perhaps not loudly enough or without qualification, he is willing to admit having been wrong. Some will say his books and his appearance in my film are a strategy to whitewash his responsibility. And I think there is an element of that. What human being wouldn't want to construe his life in the best possible way? But McNamara dares to wonder if the world has to be the way it is. He dares wonder if we could ever learn to live without war."
It is in Errol Morris' nature to look for the best in people even as he endeavors to tell the truth about them. His devastating portrait of Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter in this film is nonetheless relentlessly humane. He encourages us not to hate Leuchter, but to feel sorry for his stupidity. Morris has far more sympathy for McNamara and obviously sees him as a man in search of redemption. But the film does not suggest that McNamara's journey is done. Morris gives McNamara the opportunity to express sorrow and admit guilt, and he won't do it. McNamara may be making progress in his soul-searching, but the picture makes clear that, to a sad extent, he is still lost in the fog of war. And so it is with many who have sat where McNamara once sat.
NOW WE ARE LOST IN ANOTHER FOG OF OUR own making. And this time the situation is both worse and less excusable. The legal beginnings of the hostilities in Vietnam and those in Iraq are nettlesomely similar. Lyndon Johnson extracted congressional permission to pursue military action in Vietnam through the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a war act based on an incident Morris shows never happened. An American ship was supposedly attacked by the North Vietnamese but, in fact, it wasn't. George W. Bush elicited war powers from congress and built a "coalition of the willing" based on "weapons of mass destruction" that don't exist. President Bush asserted that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were terrorist allies, but no evidence has emerged to substantiate such a charge and much evidence exists to disprove it.
Vietnam faced a spiraling decline in public support. Iraq is becoming a matter of public concern at a much faster rate. Though John Kerry now tries to soft-peddle his public condemnation of them in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vietnam produced My Lai and other human rights atrocities. Gulf War II has already splashed the front pages of world newspapers and lead stories of evening newscasts with the foulness of events in Abu Ghraib prison. Vietnam protesters were taunted to "go back to Russia" while war supporters insisted "my country: right or wrong." Iraq has yet to generate the kind of mass protest that Vietnam did, but if the war lasts long enough, and the cost in American lives continues to rise, it will. Vietnam became a quagmire because, having gotten us in, neither Johnson nor Nixon could determine how to get us out, a dilemma Robert McNamara reflects on at length. The Bush administration plows forward with its plan to "hand over sovereignty" to the Iraqis by the end of June 2004. But whatever ceremonies are performed, no one believes that American troops will be, or at this point even ought to be, withdrawn anytime soon.
Still, there are telling differences. McNamara proves convincing in his interviews with Morris that the tragic blunder of Vietnam can only be understood in the context of the Cold War. The Soviet colossus was a genuine threat to Western-style democracy and to world peace. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy believed that Soviet influence did not have to be contested in every corner of the earth. That's why he was able to devise an exit plan from Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, in tragic contrast, bought the tortured wisdom of the "domino theory" which held that failing to fight communism in Vietnam meant having eventually to fight it in Australia. The collapse of the Soviet bloc a decade and half ago proved that notion entirely wrong, but at least it was forged amid a quarter-century of extremely tense relations and genuine provocations. The Bush administration began to beat the drums of war in Iraq in the context of a post-September-eleven world frenetic with fear of Islamic terrorists. Indeed, the American public accepted the determination to invade Iraq and fumed over the refusal of NATO partners Germany and France to fight by our side precisely because Americans bought the notion that deposing Saddam would make us safer. What segment of the American populace now believes that the Iraq war has increased rather than diminished our national security? And if former Bush administration official Richard A. Clarke is right in his book Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terrorism, September 11, 2001 provided not a context for the Iraqi war but rather a pretext. That's a very grave difference indeed. Clarke maintains that the president and his closest advisers were making plans to invade Iraq during their first days in office. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington gave them the excuse to do so.
ALL OF THIS IS WHY I FAVOR THE DRAFT EVEN though I spent three years of my young life fighting it. Average Americans ought to have a personal stake in policies that lead to and sustain war. In the aftermath of victory over tyranny in World War II and the astonishing generosity of the Marshall Plan, America was a beacon of hope to the developing world in the 1950s. But we squandered a great portion of our standing and moral authority by trying to impose our will on a tiny Asian nation that we never understood and for too long didn't grasp that we couldn't cow. Now we are making the same mistake again. President Bush promised that we would be greeted as liberators. A year after the collapse of Saddam's army we are suffering greater casualties during the occupation than during the war. We have failed to learn every lesson Robert McNamara declares essential to deciding to wage war.
Bring back the draft, and we'll see how long the nation's young men and women and their fathers and mothers will tolerate a foreign policy so arrogant that it sneers even at the need for allies. One of the things I cherish most about my own struggle with the draft is something my friend Will Campbell once told me. "We won a war," he said of his generation that served in World War II. "That was a good thing. But your generation stopped a war. And that was an even better thing. "
Fredrick Barton is professor of English at the University of New Orleans where he currently serves as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost. His fourth novel, A House Divided, won the William Faulkner Prize in fiction. His award-winning first novel, The El Cholo Feeling Passes, has just been re-released in a new trade paperback edition.