Monday, November 22, 2004


I saw the movie Glory a few days ago. I never get tired of watching it. The film about the first black regiment in America's civil war always inspires me. Although there are moral quandaries presented, the men in the regiment, their leaders and their actions in battle are depicted as courageous, honorable and self sacrificing. They are the good guys and they are obviously in the right.

But war is never that black and white. Even when the good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined, the act of fighting itself is often muddy, ambiguous.

The most recently publicized reflection of this is the case of the journalist who recorded the Marine shooting a wounded insurgent in Falluja. Those who are angry at the journalist are upset because he caught it on tape for the world to see and supposedly, his patriotic duty was to hide what he saw. But soldiers face those moral dilemmas on a daily basis and they will face them in the future, whether the rest of the world learns about them or not. We want a sanitized picture of war in which our soldiers are clear heroes and can do no wrong. We want the gruesome visions of the dead and the morally questionable acts left in the shadows. But war is enacted by human beings so it is burdened by human fallacies, human emotions.

In Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara of the Vietnam era describes the lessons he has learned. He says, "What 'the fog of war' means is: 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. Wilson said: 'We won the war to end all wars.' I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits."

And reasons change. In some instances, you are a good guy one day and a bad guy the next, and vice versa. The Soviet Union was our ally in World War II and then our enemy for the next 50 years. Saddam was our friend in the 1980s; now he's not.

This is not to say that there are no moral absolutes. There are clear principles of right and wrong to which we must adhere. We have rules of engagement because even in the act of killing in war, we want to impose restrictions to show that we are not savages. But war is messy. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, or it's in between or it's both right and wrong. In such chaotic and frightening situations, how do you determine the right course of action? If you hesitate to define your enemy, you could risk your life and the lives of soldiers around you. If you react too quickly, you may take an innocent life. And often, you have only a second to make this decision. The situation sucks all around.

I feel badly for both the journalist and the Marine recorded in Falluja. They were both put in an impossible situation that they may now second guess, obsess over, turn around in their head for the rest of their lives. And they have learned a lifetime's lesson about the haziness of the fog of war.