My dear friend and late Nation colleague Andrew Kopkind liked to tell how, skiing in Aspen at the height of the Vietnam War, he came around a bend and saw another skier, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, alone near the edge of a precipice. This was during the period of Rolling Thunder, which ultimately saw three times as many bombs dropped on Vietnam as the Allies dropped on Europe in the Second World War. "I could have reached out with my ski pole," Andy would say wistfully, "and pushed him over."

            Alas, Andy shirked this chance to get into the history books, and McNamara survived the 1960s, when he contributed more than most to the slaughter of 3.4 million Vietnamese (his own estimate). He went on to run the World Bank, where he presided over the impoverishment, eviction from their lands and death of many millions more around the world. And now, here he is, the star of Errol Morris' much-praised, in my view wildly over-praised, documentary "The Fog of War," talking comfortably about the millions of people he's helped to kill. It reminded me of films of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and then head of war production. Speer loved to admit to an overall guilt. But when he was pressed on specific nastiness, like working Jews or Russians to death in arms factories, he would insist, eyes ablaze with forthrightness, that he knew nothing of such infamies.

            The documentary's gimmickry -- cuts to black, Morris shouting his questions away from the mike, McNamara off-center in the frame, montage of typewriter-ribbon wheels, skulls dropping in slow motion down a stairwell, captions offering very banal "lessons" -- gives us a clue. Morris didn't have much to throw at McNamara. He didn't do enough homework. Time and again, McNamara gets away with it, cowering in the shadow of baroque monsters like Curtis LeMay or L.B.J., choking up about his choice of Kennedy's gravesite in Arlington, sniffling at the memory of Johnson giving him the Medal of Freedom, spouting nonsense about how Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, muffling himself in the ever-useful camouflage of the "fog of war."

            When McNamara looks back down memory lane, there are no real shadows, just the sunlight of moral self-satisfaction: "I don't fault Truman for dropping the bomb . "; "I never saw Kennedy more shocked" (after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem); "never would I have authorized an illegal action" (after the Tonkin Gulf fakery); "I'm very proud of my accomplishments, and I'm very sorry I made errors" (his life). Slabs of instructive history are missing from Morris' film. McNamara rode into the Pentagon on one of the biggest of big lies, the bogus "missile gap" touted by Kennedy in his 1960 campaign against Nixon. It was all nonsense. As Defense Secretary McNamara ordered the production of 1,000 Minuteman strategic nukes, this at a time when he was looking at U.S. intelligence reports showing that the Soviets had one silo with one untested missile.

            To Morris now he offers homilies about the menace of nuclear Armageddon. It's cost-free to say such things, grazing peacefully on the tranquil mountain pastures of his 87 years. Why did Morris not try to extort from McNamara, in those 23 hours of interviews, some reflections on how people in their forties, on active service in the belly of the beast, should behave. Would McNamara encourage today's weapons designers in Los Alamos to mutiny, to resign? Were the atom spies in Los Alamos in the 1940s right to try to level nuclear terror to some sort of balance? How does McNamara regard the Berrigans and their comrades who served, or are serving, decades in prison for physically attacking nuclear missiles, beating the decks of the Sea Wolf nuclear submarine with their hammers?

            McNamara is self-serving and disingenuous. Reminiscing about his acceptance of Kennedy's invitation to come from Ford in Detroit to Camelot, McNamara claims to Morris that he insisted he would not be part of Georgetown's pesky social round. Nonsense. He took to it like a parvenu to ermine, as more than one Washington hostess could glowingly recall.

            Apparently, to McNamara's mortification, Morris passes over his subject's 13-year stint running the World Bank, whither he was dispatched by L.B.J., Medal of Freedom in hand, and which he ran for the next 13 years. The McNamara of the World Bank he ran for 13 years evolved organically, from the McNamara of Vietnam. The one was prolegomenon to the other, the horrors perhaps on a narrower and more vivid scale, but ultimately lesser in dimension and consequence.

            Most World Bank loans vanished into the hands of local elites, who very often used the money to steal the resources -- pasture, forest, water, of the very poor whom the Bank was professedly seeking to help.

            In Vietnam, Agent Orange and napalm. Across the Third World, the Bank underwrote "Green Revolution" technologies that the poorest peasants couldn't afford and that drenched land in pesticides and fertilizer. Vast infrastructural projects such as dams and kindred irrigation projects once again drove the poor from their lands, from Brazil to India.

            It was the malign parable of "modernization" written across the face of the Third World. The managerial ideal for McNamara was a managerial dictatorship. World Bank loans surged to Pinochet's Chile after Allende's overthrow, to Uruguay, to Argentina, to Brazil after the military coup, to the Philippines, to Suharto after the '65 coup in Indonesia. And to the Romania of Ceausescu. McNamara poured money -- $2.36 billion between 1974 and 1982 -- into the tyrant's hands. In 1980, Romania was the Bank's eighth biggest borrower.

            I don't think Morris laid a glove on McNamara, who should be feeling well pleased. Like Speer, he got away with it yet again. In the weeks after the film was launched he scurried to Washington to participate in forums on the menace of nuclear destruction with the same self-assurance that he went to Vietnam and Cuba to review the record. If Morris had done a decent job, McNamara would not have dared to appear in any public place.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.