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Analysis: Vietnam lessons learned?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   May 21, 2004 at 6:07 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, May 21 (UPI) -- Errol Morris, who won an Oscar for his Vietnam-era documentary "The Fog of War," does not line up with those who say Iraq is another Vietnam, but he suggests that the United States could have avoided trouble in Iraq by applying the lessons learned from that earlier war.

Morris raised the comparison issue in February in his Academy Award acceptance speech.

"Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died," he said. "I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again. And if people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I've done some damn good here."

Morris' film is built around extensive interviews with Robert McNamara, alternately regarded and reviled as the architect of U.S. military strategy for the war in Vietnam. The film examines McNamara's World War II experience as an efficiency expert who designed systems for leveraging maximum productivity out of U.S. military personnel and resources, but the emphasis is mainly on McNamara's role as secretary of defense during the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations.

America's experience in Vietnam led to the widespread application of the term "quagmire" in the political discourse. The term has made something of a comeback as the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues, and growing numbers of Americans say they question the wisdom of President George W. Bush's policy there.

In an interview with United Press International, Morris said that although Iraq is not Vietnam, there is a strong resemblance.

"I believe that we are making many of the same mistakes, and it's horrific to watch," he said. "History doesn't repeat itself, but the mistakes that we make do repeat themselves."

Morris said a series of mistakes helped lead to America's involvement in Vietnam, including a refusal to listen to allies, an ignorance of a foreign culture and a failure to consider the long-range implications of military action.

"It comes down to the fact that we engaged in wishful thinking; we didn't think about what do to next," he said. "The frightening thing is this could happen in any administration, Democratic or Republican."

Morris said one of the biggest surprises for him in researching "The Fog of War" was listening to telephone conversations involving top U.S. officials -- particularly conversations between McNamara and Johnson in 1964-65 -- that illustrate the enormous power of the president.

"What you hear is a bellicose president who wants to go to war," he said.

According to Morris, a major difference between Iraq and Vietnam is the willingness of former Bush administration officials to go public with their policy differences immediately, rather than waiting for more than a generation as McNamara did.

"In McNamara's day very few people left the administration," he said, "and those who did, didn't publicly speak out."

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., has become a booster of "The Fog of War." He told UPI he wanted to arrange a screening for his colleagues on the Housed Armed Services Committee.

"A distressing number of my colleagues have not seen it and are also unaware of our Vietnam War history," Cooper said. "They know the cartoon version but they don't know the real truth."

Cooper said he also wanted his colleagues to see "The Battle of Algiers," a 1965 film commissioned by the government of Algeria that shows the use of torture by French forces and the use of random bomb attacks by Algerians.

Cooper said he hoped DVDs would be able to reach members in ways that books, as far as he can tell, do not. He said that on a recent fact-finding trip to Iraq, he brought books on Islam and on Iraq, while some colleagues packed "Terminator" DVDs.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., disputed the characterization of Congress members as non-readers. He said members on fact-finding trips have extensive research materials prepared for them by the State Department that contain briefings about the places they are about to visit.

"It's been my experience that I and my colleagues read the binder on the way over," he said. "Everywhere I go, I have a mountain of newspapers to read."

In any event, it appears unlikely that House Armed Services Committee members will gather in a screening room to watch "The Fog of War," or any other movie. Harald Stavenas, a spokesman for the committee, said chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., would "respect that request" if Cooper wanted to arrange a screening, but he suggested it might be more practical to hand out DVDs to the members.

"To get everybody in one room for something like this is like herding cats," said Stavenas.

Morris, of course, would like as many people as possible -- policy makers included -- to see the movie.

"I'd hoped all along that the movie would have some effect, that it would make people stop and reflect on what we do, how wars emerge and what they mean," he said, "and get a heightened perspective of this one man who was so much part of the wars of the 20th century."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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