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The Next 'Pentagon Papers'

By Daniel Ellsberg,
January 28, 2004

After 17 months observing pacification efforts in Vietnam as a state department official, I laid eyes upon an unmistakable enemy for the first time on New Year's Day in 1967. I was walking point with three members of a company from the U.S. Army's 25th Division, moving through tall rice, the water over our ankles, when we heard firing close behind us. We spun around, ready to fire. I saw a boy of about 15, wearing nothing but ragged black shorts, crouching and firing an AK-47 at the troops behind us. I could see two others, heads just above the top of the rice, firing as well.

They had lain there, letting us four pass so as to get a better shot at the main body of troops. We couldn't fire at them, because we would have been firing into our own platoon. But a lot of its fire came back right at us. Dropping to the ground, I watched this kid firing away for 10 seconds, till he disappeared with his buddies into the rice. After a minute the platoon ceased fire in our direction and we got up and moved on.

About an hour later, the same thing happened again; this time I only saw a glimpse of a black jersey through the rice. I was very impressed, not only by their tactics but by their performance.

One thing was clear: these were local boys. They had the advantage of knowing every ditch and dyke, every tree and blade of rice and piece of cover, like it was their own backyard. Because it was their backyard. No doubt (I thought later) that was why they had the nerve to pop up in the midst of a reinforced battalion and fire away with American troops on all sides. They thought they were shooting at trespassers, occupiers, that they had a right to be there and we didn't. This would have been a good moment to ask myself if they were wrong, and if we had a good enough reason to be in their backyard to be fired at.

Later that afternoon, I turned to the radio man, a wiry African-American kid who looked too thin to be lugging his 75-pound radio, and asked: "By any chance, do you ever feel like the redcoats?"

Without missing a beat he said, in a drawl: "I've been thinking that ... all ... day." You couldn't miss the comparison if you'd gone to grade school in America. Foreign troops far from home, wearing helmets and uniforms and carrying heavy equipment, getting shot at every half-hour by non-uniformed irregulars near their own homes, blending into the local population after each attack.

I can't help but remember that afternoon as I read about U.S. and British patrols meeting rockets and mines without warning in the cities of Iraq. As we faced ambush after ambush in the countryside, we passed villagers who could have told us we were about to be attacked. Why didn't they? First, there was a good chance their friends and family members were the ones doing the attacking. Second, we were widely seen by the local population not as allies or protectors - as we preferred to imagine - but as foreign occupiers. Helping us would have been seen as collaboration, unpatriotic. Third, they knew that to collaborate was to be in danger from the resistance, and that the foreigners' ability to protect them was negligible.

There could not be a more exact parallel between this situation and Iraq. Our troops in Iraq keep walking into attacks in the course of patrols apparently designed to provide "security" for civilians who, mysteriously, do not appear the slightest bit inclined to warn us of these attacks. This situation - as in Vietnam - is a harbinger of endless bloodletting. I believe American and British soldiers will be dying, and killing, in that country as long as they remain there.

As more and more U.S. and British families lose loved ones in Iraq - killed while ostensibly protecting a population that does not appear to want them there - they will begin to ask: "How did we get into this mess, and why are we still in it?" And the answers they find will be disturbingly similar to those the American public found for Vietnam.

I served three U.S. presidents - Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon - who lied repeatedly and blatantly about our reasons for entering Vietnam, and the risks in our staying there. For the past year, I have found myself in the horrifying position of watching history repeat itself. I believe that George Bush and Tony Blair lied - and continue to lie - as blatantly about their reasons for entering Iraq and the prospects for the invasion and occupation as the presidents I served did about Vietnam.

By the time I released to the press in 1971 what became known as the Pentagon Papers - 7,000 pages of top-secret documents demonstrating that virtually everything four American presidents had told the public about our involvement in Vietnam was false - I had known that pattern as an insider for years, and I knew that a fifth president, Richard Nixon, was following in their footsteps. In the fall of 2002, I hoped that officials in Washington and London who knew that our countries were being lied into an illegal, bloody war and occupation would consider doing what I wish I had done in 1964 or 1965, years before I did, before the bombs started to fall: expose these lies, with documents.

I can only admire the more timely, courageous action of Katherine Gun, the GCHQ translator who risked her career and freedom to expose an illegal plan to win official and public support for an illegal war, before that war had started. Her revelation of a classified document urging British intelligence to help the United States bug the phones of all the members of the U.N. security council to manipulate their votes on the war may have been critical in denying the invasion a false cloak of legitimacy. That did not prevent the aggression, but it was reasonable for her to hope that her country would not choose to act as an outlaw, thereby saving lives. She did what she could, in time for it to make a difference, as indeed others should have done, and still can.

I have no doubt that there are thousands of pages of documents in safes in London and Washington right now - the Pentagon Papers of Iraq - whose unauthorized revelation would drastically alter the public discourse on whether we should continue sending our children to die in Iraq. That's clear from what has already come out through unauthorized disclosures from many anonymous sources and from officials and former officials such as David Kelly and U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, who revealed the falsity of reports that Iraq had pursued uranium from Niger, which President Bush none the less cited as endorsed by British intelligence in his state of the union address before the war. Both Downing Street and the White House organized covert pressure to punish these leakers and to deter others, in Dr. Kelly's case with tragic results.

Those who reveal documents on the scale necessary to return foreign policy to democratic control risk prosecution and prison sentences, as Katherine Gun is now facing. I faced 12 felony counts and a possible sentence of 115 years; the charges were dismissed when it was discovered that White House actions aimed at stopping further revelations of administration lying had included criminal actions against me.

Exposing governmental lies carries a heavy personal risk, even in our democracies. But that risk can be worthwhile when a war's-worth of lives is at stake.

Daniel Ellsberg is the author of "Secrets: a Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers." This piece originally appeared in The Guardian on Jan. 27, 2004.


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It's Just Wrong What We're Doing' - In an exclusive interview, repentant Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara breaks his silence on Iraq: The United States, he says, is making the same mistakes again

'Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

With those words, written nine years ago, Robert McNamara began an extraordinary final phase of his career -- devoted to chronicling the errors, delusions and false assumptions that turned him into the chief architect and most prominent promoter of the Vietnam war.

No historic figure has put so much effort into self-examination: At the age of 87, he has now written three very detailed and analytical books, and starred in one very good movie, devoted to the fundamental mistakes that led the United States into the most politically costly and least successful war in its history.

What, then, does he think about Iraq? Until now, the former secretary of defense has avoided comment on the actions of that job's current occupant, Donald Rumsfeld. The two are often compared to each other in their autocratic leadership styles and in their technocratic, numbers-driven approaches to war. And their wars, of course, are often likened. But Robert McNamara has insisted in staying out of the fray.

He decided to break his silence on Iraq when I called him up the other day at his Washington office. I told him that his carefully enumerated lists of historic lessons from Vietnam were in danger of being ignored. He agreed, and told me that he was deeply frustrated to see history repeating itself.

"We're misusing our influence," he said in a staccato voice that had lost none of its rapid-fire engagement. "It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong."

While he did not want to talk on the record about specific military decisions made Mr. Rumsfeld, he said the United States is fighting a war that he believes is totally unnecessary and has managed to destroy important relationships with potential allies. "There have been times in the last year when I was just utterly disgusted by our position, the United States' position vis-à-vis the other nations of the world."

On Monday night, we heard the United States at its very worst with George W. Bush's caustic State of the Union address, in which he declared, over and over, that America is serving God's will directly and does not need "a permission slip" from other nations since "the cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind."

That vision of manifest destiny, stripped of any larger view, has led down some unfortunate roads. The Iraq action, which would have been conducted in some form or another at some point under any imaginable government, would have been far better conceived if its executors had read Mr. McNamara's works instead of the Book of Revelation.

In 1995, in his memoir In Retrospect, Mr. McNamara published a list of the 11 specific mistakes he believed the United States had made in and around the Vietnam war that still had relevance in the very different political and military climate of the 21st century.

I have always been wary of comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. The circumstances are profoundly different, and the scale of conflict and death is nowhere near the same. Vietnam was a small nation engaged in a civil war that Americans misread as a Chinese incursion on all of Asia, while Iraq has been strangled by one of history's worst totalitarian dictators. The American mistake was its belief that the dictator's removal would be sufficient.

But to read Mr. McNamara's 1995 list today is to read an uncanny analysis of the missteps of the Iraq campaign. He told me that this list has come to haunt him as he watches the Mesopotamian misadventure unfold.

Chief among the discoveries that led him to see Vietnam as a mistake, he said, was his realization that the United States could not, by itself, properly analyze the actions and ground-level conditions necessary to achieve the complex and ambiguous goals of a war -- reversing the influence of communism in Asia, in Vietnam's case, or bringing democracy to the Arab world, in Iraq's.

"And the reason I feel that is that we're not omniscient," he said. "And we've demonstrated that in Iraq, I think." He pointed to Washington's failure to appreciate the complexities of Iraqi culture, and therefore to anticipate the extended guerrilla war it is now engaged in -- a chief mistake of Vietnam. Without the full involvement of other major nations, he said, such mistakes will always be made.

"And if we can't persuade other nations with comparable values and comparable interests of the merit of our course, we should reconsider the course, and very likely change it. And if we'd followed that rule, we wouldn't have been in Vietnam, because there wasn't one single major ally, not France or Britain or Germany or Japan, that agreed with our course or stood beside us there. And we wouldn't be in Iraq."

In his recent book Wilson's Ghost, Mr. McNamara argued that military forces should sometimes be used to oust dictators guilty of grave crimes against humanity. However, he said, this can succeed politically and militarily only if it is done with broad international support under the aegis of a body such as the United Nations (which helped intervene in East Timor) or NATO (which led the charge in the Balkans).

"The United States is today the strongest power in the world, politically, economically and militarily, and I think it will continue to be so for decades ahead, if not for the whole century," he told me. "But I do not believe, with one qualification, that it should ever, ever use that power unilaterally -- the one qualification being the unlikely event we had to use it to defend the continental U.S., Alaska or Hawaii."

Mr. McNamara said it is particularly upsetting to see that the White House administration has ignored or failed to heed key recommendations coming from military officers on the ground in Iraq -- a crucial and oft-repeated mistake in Vietnam. American military officials in Iraq complained early that their forces were ill-equipped for the complex work of nation-building and policing, but the White House has until very recently refused to discuss using UN peacekeeping forces for such work.

Last week, the United States indicated that it is seeking the UN's assistance in the nation-building effort, a move that Mr. McNamara said is vital if the war is ever to be brought to an end, and civil life restored in Iraq.

"Many people, myself among them, thought the United Nations should have played a much greater role in connection with Iraq than it has, and I'm personally very pleased to see that the administration is thinking today of increasing the role of the UN. . . . I hope the UN will accept."

To appreciate the staggering scale of the lessons Mr. McNamara has learned, everyone ought to see the new feature documentary about him, The Fog of War. Its director, Errol Morris, is certainly the best non-fiction filmmaker alive (his Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is the most action-packed movie ever made about the philosophy of being). This film, focused tightly on the bombings of Japan in the Second World War and Vietnam in the 1960s, offers a profound fourth volume to Mr. McNamara's continuing mea culpa.

In it, he suggests repeatedly that his faith in superior military technology and the scientific potential of data processing (he was known to his 1960s critics as "an IBM machine with legs") led him to underestimate the difficulties and complexities of the cultures in which he was fighting.

The same fundamental fallacy, he said, is present today. Even though computerized and laser-guided weapons allow campaigns to be waged with only a few dozen American deaths and hundreds of foreign deaths (as opposed to the tens of thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese deaths in the 1960s and 1970s), it has become no easier to achieve society-transforming military goals, or to extricate yourself from an invaded nation.

"The new circumstances and new technology didn't help us in Iraq, and the issue there was allegedly the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. You can't get anything more fundamental than that. The case for this was certainly made forcefully -- I think erroneously, but it was very well made. . . . And now we've just got to repair these fissures, these breaks in our relationship with many, many important powers in the world, and many important institutions."

He said many lives have been unnecessarily lost around the world because the United States has refused to support the International Criminal Court, an institution he believes could have provided an alternative to war in Iraq.

"Let's think about that in human terms -- you have to reduce the risk of killing and catastrophe," he said. "We've got to do that, and we're not paying nearly enough attention to it. And one illustration is, we don't support things that would have that as their goal . . . for example, this international court. The U.S. is totally opposed to it. I think they're absolutely wrong. We've not only refused to support it, we try to buy off countries that are supporting it."

Mr. McNamara broadly declined to discuss specific decisions made by Mr. Bush -- "I don't want to get in an argument with Bush and the administration. I don't think that advances my interests at all," he said. But he didn't mind adding that he was dismayed that members of the Republican administration have likened their position after Sept. 11, 2001, to that of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had been Mr. McNamara's moment of truth. Mr. Bush, he said, wouldn't have been up to it. And Mr. Kennedy would have handled Iraq differently.

Just over a year ago, Mr. McNamara traveled to Cuba and learned just how perilous that moment had been: Cuba, Fidel Castro admitted, had been home to a nuclear arsenal, and he had been willing to sacrifice his own island nation in order to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. The world really did come within moments of ending.

More than anything else, this revelation has led Mr. McNamara to argue that the Kennedy approach to the world ought to be emulated. Mr. McNamara was the first to argue, based on his own diary, that had he lived, JFK would have ended the Vietnam war in 1965.

I take that claim with a grain of salt, since I believe that Mr. Kennedy's record of endlessly reversing himself and caving in to the authority of his military commanders would have trumped his better convictions.

Nevertheless, recently declassified documents have lent the notion credence. And I do believe Mr. McNamara when he says that the Kennedy taste for international co-operation would have served the world better than the White House's current with-us-or-against-us approach.

"I don't believe that Kennedy would be reacting the way Bush is. For one thing, Kennedy reached out. A critic in those early days of the administration was John Kenneth Galbraith [the Canadian economist, who believed Vietnam was a bad idea]. And Kennedy reached out, and appointed him to a high-level position, and he talked to him about Vietnam. You don't see that today."

McNamara's 11 lessons

In 1995, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara published In Retrospect, the first of his three books dissecting the errors, myths and miscalculations that led to the Vietnam War, which he now believes was a serious mistake. Nine years later, most of these lessons seem uncannily relevant to the Iraq war in its current nation-building, guerrilla-warfare phase.

We misjudged then -- and we have since -- the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries . . . and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.

We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. . . . We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.

We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.

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 then -- and have since -- to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine. . . .

We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.

We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement . . . before we initiated the action.

After the action got under way and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course . . . we did not fully explain what was happening and why we were doing what we did.

We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people's or country's best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or 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 (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.

We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions. . . . At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues.


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