The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh
As May 2005 approached, the country noted a painful anniversary. In the spring of 1975 Saigon fell to the Viet Cong. The images still horrify. The memory remains too sad. Any healing thoughts are of the Vietnamese peoplethe millions killed and maimed but grieved, those who were on our side and were left behind, the families divided and reunited, the victors who now celebrate their defeat of the United States and all those boat people, so many of whom now grace our country with their genius, traditions and forgiveness.

We Americans suffered terrible losses in our families and the nation’s psyche, but the Vietnamese, no matter where they are in the world, lost more. Yet they have a resilience that is stunning, a regeneration that stirs the soul. Had we won the war, would it have been better for this earth? Or might it have been worse?

Yes, mistakes were made. Too many. If you take the time to view the brilliant documentary by Errol Morris, Fog of War, you will hear from Robert McNamara, who helped orchestrate our war in Vietnam, a litany of those mistakes. The first of his Eleven Lessons, is Empathize with your enemy; the last, You can’t change human nature.

McNamara’s own published litany of lessons (in his 1995 memoir In Retrospect, listed by The Globe and Mail in January 2004) is an ominous oracle: We misjudged them. We viewed the people and leaders in terms of our own experience.... We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.... Our judgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the area and the personalities and habits of their leaders.... We failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine.... We failed to win the hearts and minds of a people from a totally different culture.... We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement before we initiated the action.... We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image as we choose.... We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully by the international community. Alas. Again, alas.

So here we are in another war of attrition. Instructed that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by the threat of weapons of mass destruction, assured by government and generals that the worst is always over, told to bring it on once too often, we are still cheered on by people who chose this war. Every bombing of the last two years is supposed to show only the desperation of the enemy. Each account of terror against an Iraqi or American is rebutted by a complaint that we hear only bad news. Well, the news is bad. Iraq is in shambles.

Two years ago, amidst the looting that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld consoled us with the thought that If you go from a repressive regime...in that transition period, there is untidiness. Well now, as we enter a third year of transitional untidiness, in less than a week’s span we have seen the terror killing of 250 Iraqi security recruits, many scores of civilians and another 14 American soldiers.

The cost of this war is not just the dollars300 billion is the number bandied abouta loss not only to our treasury but also to the good it might have done for peace in Africa or financial reconstruction in Russia. Nor is it limited to the lost lives and limbs of the many thousands beyond our soldiers and their families who grieve for them. The dearest cost is the risk it involves for our future.

Whatever good intentions may have been behind its undertaking, and despite the thrill of seeing that monster Saddam’s statue fall, and no matter how moving or promising is the sight of eight million Iraqis voting, we can only hope and pray that the fog of this war will not envelop our new century in dark and endless strife.

May those who pushed and praised the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption be correct in their estimation of its outcome. Even though one disagrees with the morality of the course of action taken, one may still hope that more good will be done than evil unleashed. Now that we have launched this conflict in Iraq, we must not dishonorably abandon its people to patron tyrants, figureheads, endless insurgency and civil war.

Let us at least, while we still have a chance, learn from the warnings of Robert McNamara: know the enemy and why they are our enemy; do not misjudge the people and the passions of the area we occupy; realize the limitations of military power; win hearts and minds; enter into honest discussion both at home and in the council of nations; and realize that we do not have the right to shape the world in our own image.

On Jan. 29, 2002, President Bush said, I will not stand by while dangers gather and peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.

If he is as vigilant and committed to making the peace as he was to getting us into war, we will not have to commemorate, 30 years hence, a terrible mistake.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.