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Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking, 2002)

         A year into the Iraqi war, an increasing number of people are comparing the debacle to the quagmire that was Vietnam.  In one interview about the American torture of Iraqi prisoners, even Secretary of State Colin Powell made an unsolicited comparison with the Mai Lai massacre.  Most people now acknowledge that the Bush administration has been less than candid about not only the war in Iraq but also its policies and decisions before and after the 9/11 attacks.  Enter Daniel Ellsberg.

         In this memoir Ellsberg documents how five successive presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) systematically lied to the American people and to congress about the Vietnam war.  His story is especially compelling because (similar to John Kerry in at least this regard), he served patriotically in Vietnam, only to have that experience convince him how terribly wrong his own government was about the war.  As a Marine company commander in Vietnam, Ellsberg was an enthusiastic supporter of the war.  But two years of wading through swampy jungles, and extended study of classified documents, convinced him that government rhetoric and empirical realities were two very different things.  Ellsberg came home and became an outspoken critic of the war, and in an aggressive effort to stop the war he leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers to congress and then to the media, 7,000 pages in 47 volumes of top secret documents.

         The lesson?  Citizens would be naïve to believe all that its government says or to support all that it does.  Christians, especially, believe that Caesar is not God.  This was a radical notion in the early centuries of the faith, for in the Roman Empire Caesar was god, and believers paid dearly for it with two centuries of martyrdom.  In fact, as Bernard Lewis has observed, it is to Christianity that we owe the novel idea of a distinctly secular state, as opposed to theocracies such as ancient Israel or modern Iran (or emerging Iraq?).  If the state is secular and not sacred, if Caesar is not God, if our recent governments have shown their near pathological propensity to lie about matters large and small, and if most all governments must as a practical necessity use brutal and coercive powers to protect national interests and deliberate neglect of the weak where there is no national interest (Rwandan genocide), then it might deserve our allegiance, yes, but also our loyal opposition.

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