"Belief and seeing are both often wrong," says former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who served for 7 years under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in the documentary, "The Fog of War."

I just finished watching the film at work, while waiting to head to the demonstration in protest of the Bush agenda in an hour, and it frightens me that some of the same short-sightedness has possessed our country.

These things were clear to me long ago, and I recall reading a New York Times editorial a few years ago about admissions McNamara made in his book.

[O]nly one argument could be advanced to clear President Johnson and Mr. McNamara ... of the charge of wasting lives atrociously. That was the theory that they possessed superior knowledge, not available to the public, that the collapse of South Vietnam would lead to regional and perhaps world domination by the Communists; and moreover, that their superior knowledge was so compelling it rendered unreliable and untrue the apparent facts available to even the most expert opponents of the war.

Of course, there were no such facts — much like reputed weapons of mass destruction — and McNamara even admits, "We never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination."

Both Johnson and McNamara, writes Howell Raines, ignored good advice, "logical warning or ethical appeal."

When senior figures talked sense to Mr. Johnson and Mr. McNamara, they were ignored or dismissed from government. When young people in the ranks brought that message, they were court-martialed. When young people in the streets shouted, they were hounded from the country.

It is important to remember how fate dispensed rewards and punishment for Mr. McNamara’s thousands of days of error. Three million Vietnamese died. Fifty-eight thousand Americans got to come home in body bags. Mr. McNamara, while tormented by his role in the war, got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the Vineyard.

The editorial resounded within me that day, and I regret not cutting it out of the paper. But I remembered it well enough to find it again.

Before I make my way to 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, I want to share one of the movie's quotes that sent a shudder through me moments ago. It's by President Johnson, delivered in a slight Texas twang, making the feeble case for continued U.S. military involvement in Vietnam:

"America wins the wars she undertakes, make no mistake about it. We have declared war on tyranny and aggression. ... If this little nation goes down the drain and can't maintain independence, ask yourself what's going to happen to all the other little nations."

We lost, and the nightmare scenario never materialized. For this, more than 58,000 Americans lost their lives.


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