A Fog of War

09/04/2013 10:18 am ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

In the 2003 film The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, teaches us the eleven lessons he had learned about exactly that -- the fog that descends on a populace during and before war -- namely the fog of war. One of the lessons that has remained most vivid for me was the caution not to enter a war alone and to mistrust such an entry unless there was a set of alliances firmly, soundly and sanely involved. At present there seems to be the lonely role of America who can claim the support of a few nations, but the doubt and disagreement of most, allies and not.

Fortunately President Obama is turning to Congress regarding our potential entry into Syria. From Italy, where politics in general isn't looking all that good, it seems nothing less than mad to enter the field of Syrian civil warfare. The argument about chemical warfare seems compelling only if one doesn't tune into such a station as Al Jazeera where the multiple genocides and famines all throughout the world are highlighted without commercial interruption and without distractions of interruptions of Hollywood or other scandals. If one does tune in, we/one see/s the multiple horrific ports of call that call out our name, that to most of us would seem reasonable motivation to intervene, if it were to contain humanitarian reasons alone.

To learn from history is to learn humility. To learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 50 or so years ago is to read that there were in time a Kennedy and a Kruschev who both wanted to avoid war. And yes one can say here there are civilians being maimed and killed by chemical warfare, if evidence comes out to show that. And one can argue it is our job to take a stand. But to be humble, something we Americans do not have as our strong suit, is to examine our own record of humanitarianism towards our own troops and towards detainees and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to see how these country people in general see the American role.

We as Americans are not immune to our own economic and military motives regarding strategic importance of countries that also have to do with our interest in stabilizing or destabilizing the Middle East, our loyalties which seem not always so stable in themselves, and of course our interest in finances, especially in oil. There are genocides going on as there are famines in which our government does not have any apparent humanitarian conscience that wills us to interfere; we cannot even get together on having our own poor be insured so they don't die for lack of health care. Perhaps it's time that we become honest about our motivations rather than dive off the precipice again, in the name of freedom, in the name of dangers which can probably not be certified as belonging to clear information.

We went through this in Iraq. We had sided with a dictator, Saddam Hussein when it met our interests and then he had done harm, and he had weapons and then we went in, without -- as it turns out -- real evidence. We did untenable harm to our own soldiers, many of whom did more than a single term there: we gave them poor motivation, and poor reasons and the terrible circumstances within which damage to themselves and to civilians and to detainees was more than probable. There is a region, that includes Iraq and Afghanistan filled with people who have rallied against us, for whom we claimed good intentions but it hasn't turned out quite the way it was told to us.

I, as many of you, don't have the sophistication to properly evaluate the just reasons for a military invasion. But I have learned a great deal, from the press who were missing in action in not investigating the testimony the Bush Administration handed them at the time of our invasion in Iraq. I have witnessed the collective guilt of a nation who was so ambivalent to the point of cruelty to our veterans in Vietnam that it was, and still is, in the memory of many Americans. We had to go into Iraq, we had to wear a flag or have one outside our houses or we weren't American -- or we weren't American enough.

What with all the press about leaks to the press itself, perhaps it needs to be said again that to embrace being an American is to embrace freedom, which means in turn to embrace our responsibility to be informed as much as we can. It means that to disagree with our neighbor is our duty if that is what we see as the truth.

Let me say clearly for me: I don't know yet what is right. But I hope to get informed as much as possible, something I recognize as difficult due to strong governmental pressures.

There is a difference between injustice and American intervention. We are not above or below the motivations of many countries, in that often we have our own interests, something about which regular citizens often aren't informed or aware. And of course, or rather yes: There are some secrets which if known, might endanger the health and welfare of all of us. But if we are to be fair, there are many issues about which we need to know if we have any hope of our realizing democracy at home, let alone sending it abroad.

My hope is that we can get into a dialogue, a conversation of enrichment and teaching and learning. That we don't decide before the conversations and investigating that we need as much as anything else.