Jonathan E. Hillman: The Fog of More

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Jonathan E. Hillman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Looking back on the Vietnam War, which ended thirty-seven years ago today, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara remarked, "There’s a wonderful phrase: the fog of war." He explained: "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."

If the twenty-first century is any guide, McNamara’s attempt to solve the riddle of Vietnam was distinctly, and tragically, American. With enemy body counts as his compass, McNamara directed an escalation of U.S. troop levels, airpower and aid after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. As the North Vietnamese fought on, defying American assumptions, McNamara championed requests for more soldiers, bombs and dollars until resigning in late 1967.

Thirty-seven years since the fall of Saigon, the fog has not lifted, and McNamara’s ghost haunts the recent landscape of U.S. foreign policy. Today, Afghanistan’s fate remains as uncertain as before President Obama upped U.S. troop levels to six figures. Impatience with sanctions, aid and diplomacy give way to calls for military action as the United States debates entering a civil war in Syria and attacking Iran...

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