“We Americans” (a euphemism for the ruling class) probably learned something from Vietnam.  Since that disastrous war, imperial military expeditions have been conducted somewhat differently: Bomb the barbarians into submission from the air rather than try to win their hearts and minds for democracy on the ground.  It may be that we haven’t heard the final word on the long-term viability of this new approach, however.

As has been often said, getting into Afghanistan is easy.  Getting out is the hard part.  And, as far as I know, there are as yet no missiles smart enough to identify and wipe out terrorists without intelligence on the ground and subsequent mop-ups.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s unveiling a few weeks back of the new color-coded terrorism warning system (different intensities from yellow to red to indicate the increasing degree of threat to Americans) made me wonder how much “we” really learned from Vietnam after all.  Life imitates art.  Was anyone else besides me instantly reminded of the wonderful 1970’s movie Go Tell the Spartans?

In the early days of the Vietnam War, Burt Lancaster and a small group of fighting soldiers were stuck at an isolated outpost that was governed by a color-coded panel, devised by rear-echelon whiz kids, which was supposed to show the intensity of enemy activity.  Of course, it was absurd and disastrous.

The film was a perfect satire of what happens when the waging of war, an art, is controlled by robotic Detroit technocrats.  Shades of Robert McNamara!  Has he been reincarnated as Rumsfeld?  Then we really have learned nothing.  Rumsfeld has, on several other occasions, shown himself the master of gifted military thinking, as when he reported that “Afghan air defenses still pose a threat to the United States.”  He also told the American people, concerning Osama bin Laden: “He is either in Afghanistan, or another country, or dead.”

But, alas, Rumsfeld is only a stand-in for his chief, the President, whose calls to the people in the matter of terrorism have not exactly been clarion.  Eloquence is not everything, but you can hardly have true leadership in a great crisis without it.  For eloquence is nothing more than clear thinking expressed in language well designed for those who need to be led.  The imprecise, empty, platitudinous, trivial, ill-fitted, contradictory, and, yes, robotic, statements with which the President has declared and described both our enemies and our war might lead us to fear a lack of clear thinking at the source.