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Intentional and Deadly Mistakes

by RON JACOBS

There’s a fair amount of literature revealing the true nature of US foreign policy.  Some of the masters at relating this narrative (with seemingly dozens of books between them) include Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and James Loewen.  Films in this this field, however, seem to be few and far between.  Not long ago I reviewed Scott Noble’s The Power Principle, a comprehensive and radical look at US history and foreign policy.  The new series from Oliver Stone, Untold History of the United States, promises to provide another radical and provocative look at the United States’ past.  The DVD discussed below is another critical look at US foreign policy that reveals the thoughts of major architects of that policy, generals who carried it out, and its critics.

The DVD, titled Deadly Mistakes?, runs for a few hours and is actually a collection of shorter films directed by Walter Miale and collected on to a couple discs.  I viewed the entire collection in one sitting, which enabled me to absorb the arguments and rationalizations of former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak, Former Admiral and CIA chief Stansfield Turner, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, among others involved in planning, carrying out, and supporting various foreign policy adventures including the war on Vietnam, the 1980s wars in Central America, the counterinsurgency in Colombia, and the first Gulf War.  To counterbalance these men, Miale features antiwar Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, activist and writer Grace Paley, Institute for Policy Studies researcher Marcus Raskin and former US Ambassador Robert White (who resigned his post in El Salvador because of his opposition to the US war on that nations’ people.)

I asked Miale how the film came about and what his intentions were when he began the project.  His answer was:

Deadly Mistakes? started out as a fiction film, Democracy is Coming to the USA (music by Leonard Cohen), in which Isabeau Doucet, age 15 or 16 at the time we began to shoot in 1998, played a girl who was handed the job of interviewing big shots who came to give lectures at her high school, and who, in so doing, learned the facts of life (as per the clips below) from them, and found herself losing her naiveté and becoming an activist. Isabeau by the way is now a journalist whose articles have appeared in CounterPunch & the Guardian etc etc. (Appearence a few months ago on Democracy Now with her scoop on Bill Clinton making a buck as I recall out of disasters in Haiti.) I met her in a training session for a civil disobedience action in the course of which we were among a group blockading the entrance to a meeting in Montreal of the OECD on globalization.

I wanted to portray masters of power and violence, and their preposterous views, in something other than the Micky Mouse fashion of popular media….

And I wanted to portray heroes, such as Sanchez and Gene La Rocque, the actual embodiment of the U.S. military’s glorified self image, and hear their ringing views. And decent people in the National Security establishment and armed forces, such as Bob White and Ray McGovern and Bruce Blair, and their passionate views. And there was the curious figure of Merrill McPeak, Chief of the Air Force Staff, who as a fighter pilot in Vietnam had napalmed countless civilians, and who told me, “We were on the wrong side in that war.”  And there were the doves, with whom we are lucky to share the planet, and their timely-as-ever messages, which I juxtaposed with those of the warriors. The doves include Dan Berrigan, Gene Sharp, George Lakey, Noam Chomsky, political philosopher and activist Marcus Raskin, and, on the cutting room floor, Seymour Melman.

Like Noble’s film, Deadly Mistakes? pinpoints the US intervention in Guatemala and the CIA overthrow of Iranian leader Mossadegh as both the beginning of the post WW Two imperial policy of the United States and as an example of how that policy would play out.  Despite some misgivings about these specific actions, the overall consensus from Eagleburger and others is that the fact of the Cold War overrode every other concern: democratic principles and human lives.  One of the commentators, author Joshua Muravchik, goes out of his way to insist that the Soviet Union and the system it represented was one of the most evil realities humanity has ever known.  In doing so, he glosses over the millions of deaths caused by Washington’s’ perceived need to fight that “evil.”  The remarks of these leaders are disconcerting in their lack of concern over the deaths those policies caused.

Occasionally candid conversations reveal these leaders perception of their jobs.  General McPeak even goes so far as to state that Washington was on the wrong side in the Vietnam War.  Eagleburger calls that war a mistake.  However, the more frequent case finds the policy heads continuing to excuse the murderous undertakings of their forces and those aligned with them.  As noted above, their rationalizations of opposing Soviet terror combined with a series of excuses concerning US exceptionalism, this gamut of apoplectic liberals to hard core cold warriors end up rationalizing any number of deaths.   In a revealing moment Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy-Johnson years of the Vietnam War, tells the viewer that the lesson of Cuba crisis is that the US and the world should rid itself of nuclear weapons.   Despite everything, he says, we have failed to appreciate the magnitude of the destruction they will cause.  Despite the end of the Cold War, nuclear missiles remain on hair trigger alert.  The denial involved in this fact is prevalent in the words of these men captured by Miale’s microphone:  Eagleburger outraged that Kissinger could be arrested; a refusal by the retired head of SOUTHCOM to believe there was a connection between the rightwing paramilitaries in Colombia and the government; and most egregious of all, a denial of the death and destruction the polices they planned and executed have caused.

One of my favorite instances in the film occurs after McNamara says he doesn’t want to see the bloodshed of the twentieth century (160,000,000 killed) repeated in the Twenty First.  When presented with this statement pacifist Daniel Berrigan responds, “Good” he says, “Better late than never. “  So far, McNamara’s desire has not been met, in large part because of the template men and women like him created in the previous century.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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