Part 1: The Fog of War

By Joe White

War is the realm of uncertainty… war is… wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.

Carl von Clausewitz. (1780 – 1831 C.E.)

First stop: Hanoi, Vietnam.

When our Santa Barbara City College students first met their University of Hanoi student counterparts there was much excitement and curiosity. The SBCC students had learned that during the Vietnam War nearly 10% of the Vietnamese population had been killed, equivalent to nearly 30 million Americans, yet upon first
meeting there was no suspicion, bitterness or anger. The SBCC students were visiting Vietnam to learn history, study Ethics and build 2020 AYWW networks. The Vietnamese and American students had been corresponding with each other for a few weeks. The Vietnamese spoke halting English while the Americans spoke no Vietnamese but that didn’t curb the smiles, the enthusiastic welcome and the ensuing swarms of questions on both sides. Forty years after the end of a decade long war between the U.S. and Vietnam, a new generation, cleansed of the raw emotions of war, were engaging one another in laughter and excited chatter.

2020 AYWW’s first expeditionary group has now returned from its summer Vietnam and Cambodia trip. Our
2020 AYWW group was part of a larger Santa Barbara City College study abroad program co-directed by Prof. Joe White. His Ethics class focused in part on the nature and extent of the fog of war. “Fog” is a metaphor for ignorance. Ignorance is a state of not knowing though one could know. As we discovered, too often the fog that enshrouds, that urges war could have been, should have been, lifted. With its lifting so much destruction, sorrow and death could have been, should have been, avoided.

From the misjudged torpedo attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 1964, that sparked the U.S. escalation in what would become for the U.S. the Vietnam War or, for the Vietnamese, The American War, to the horrific My Lai Massacre in March, 1968 in which U.S. soldiers massacred an estimated 504 unarmed “civilians.” Quotation marks are needed for “civilians” since insurgent wars necessarily blur the boundary between combatants and non-combatants in a lethal fog. In Cambodia nearly 2 million genocidal deaths at the hands of their fellow Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge, were carried out in the fog of an clearly failed ideology.  Our 2020 AYWW expeditionary group discovered that amongst the recognized certainties of war: destruction, sorrow and pain, ignorance is a primary source of war. In our forthcoming series of blogs titled, “The Fog of War,” we will explore how the destruction, sorrow and pain of war are extensively rooted in ignorance and, tragically for our species, an ignorance that could be, should be, cleared with an ounce of knowledge, an ounce of courage and a respectful for own cognitive limits and fallibility.

The Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge was rooted in a type of ignorance that had nurtured Nazism, Stalinism and now drives ISIS.  Such intolerant, arrogant, violent, comprehensive ideologies are at best loosely tethered to history and reality. If the antidote to such ignorance is an ounce of knowledge, then 2020 AYWW remains optimistic that so much misfortune from war can be avoided if only the fog of war can be cleared.

The Fog of War is also the title of a recent documentary on the political life of Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and most of the Johnson Administration. This documentary was part ofthe Ethics curriculum. McNamara perpetuated the doggedness and escalation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At the age of 85, Robert McNamara shared 11 lessons he’s learned as a veteran in World War II and an architect of the Vietnam or American War, a war, which killed over 50,000 Americans and approximately 3 million Vietnamese. Amongst his lessons are: Rationality won’t save us, Get the data, Belief and Seeing are often both wrong, Be prepared to reevaluate your reasoning, each emphasizing facets of war’s inevitable fog. Under reevaluate your reasoning he urges, “Do not go to war unilaterally.” Had the U.S. respected his lessons, the Vietnam or American War could have been avoided.

The hope of 2020 AYWW is that we can now confront this fog, this ignorance that always feeds the false needs of war and avoid the destruction, sorrow and pain that our history of war has consistently visited upon us. Next Blog: There were no Dominoes: Vietnam & World Communism.