Bill Moyers Tells a Tale of Two Quagmires: Vietnam & Afghanistan

Bill Moyers, who was at the side of President Lyndon Johnson at the
time when disastrous decisions were being made to escalate the U.S.
presence in the quagmire that was Vietnam, used his experience to speak
Friday night to President Barack Obama about what could be an equally
disastrous decision to escalate the U.S. presence in the quagmire that
is Afghanistan.

"Our country wonders this weekend what is on President Obama's mind," Moyers began, at the opening of a remarkable hour of television.
"He is apparently, about to bring months of deliberation to a close and
answer General Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops in
Afghanistan. When he finally announces how many, why, and at what cost,
he will most likely have defined his presidency, for the consequences
will be far-reaching and unpredictable. As I read and listen and wait
with all of you for answers, I have been thinking about the mind of
another president, Lyndon B. Johnson."

The presidential adviser turned journalist, who will retire his "Bill Moyers Journal"
television program in April, then turned to decades old tapes that were
recorded as Johnson was making the decision to surge hundreds of
thousands of additional soldiers into a war that would kill almost
60,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese.

One point of the program, he explained, was to offer viewers "an
insight into the mind of one president facing the choice of whether or
not to send more and more American soldiers to fight in a far-away and
strange place."

But another point was to offer Obama and his aides a caution that
only a few wise and worldly senators provided Johnson back in the
mid-1960s -- chief among them Oregon's Wayne Morse, about whom Johnson
says on one of the tapes: "outside Morse, everybody I talk to says you
got to go in..."

Moyers was not making crude or casual analogies.

"Granted," he explained early on, "Barack Obama is not Lyndon
Johnson, Afghanistan is not Vietnam and this is now, not then. But
listen and you will hear echoes and refrains that resonate today."

The tapes of Johnson were indeed eerie and resonant, especially
those where the former president says of the battle to which he is
about to commit what he calls "the flower of our youth, our finest
young men": "I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we
can get out. And it's just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw."

But even more powerful was the recognition that the man playing them
was a witness to history who had learned from his experiences. For
Moyers, there was something deeply personal and yet profoundly public
about the statement he was making; before it aired Friday, he told me
he saw the program as "one of the most important I've done in years."

So it was.

And the most powerful part of a remarkably powerful program came at
its conclusion, when Bill Moyers looked into the camera and said:

Now in a different world, at a different time, and with
a different president, we face the prospect of enlarging a different
war. But once again we're fighting in remote provinces against an enemy
who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there
when we are gone.

Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country
where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback
brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they
will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we
are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is
being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he's got the guts, by
sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die,
while their own country is coming apart.

And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made
by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their
beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of
advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the

We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had
said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.

It is possible to go to the "Bill Moyers Journal" website and view "A Tale of Quagmires."

It is possible, as well, to visit the same site and read the transcript of a wise and nuanced rumination that is arguably the best statement available on both the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan.

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