Tuesday, April 24, 2007
The best and the brightest
I noted with great sadness today, the death of David Halberstam in a car accident. I always enjoyed his books, particularly his one about the Fifties. Halberstam was what we see too little of these days, a real journalist who thought he had an obligation to get the facts out with sufficient detail that one could actually draw coherent conclusions and not just get little sound bites.
His book , The Best and Brightest, chronicled the "whiz kids" who thought they had all the answers in 1965. It is a telling foreshadowing of the Rummy world in the early years of the 21st century.
He was a scathing critic of the war in Vietnam and in his conclusion that it was a quagmire in 1965, primarily because of the way it was managed by Washington and the corruption in Saigon were right on mark. He came under very tough criticism at the time. In today's world had he written that way, he would have been branded a surrender monkey and just another biased member of the liberal media.
Problem with that approach was that the facts just kept getting in the way. Are you listening Michelle? If you could display facts the way Halberstam could you might actually become a journalist instead of a sales provider. His words about the attacks on the media are worth listening to:
"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game," he said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around and they've used up their credibility."
"The attacks on us were very, very unpleasant," Halberstam said. "There was an attack on our manhood, on our politics. We were portrayed as being communists and weak."
But reporters are often vindicated over time, he said.
"I think the truth will always out," Halberstam said. "The people who attacked us are mostly forgotten; most of them have apologized."
His words are applicable to both sides of the blogger sphere as well. Milbloggers do not believe they are guilty of such intolerance, but I think if Mr Halberstam were to do a chronicle of the type of discourse that goes on here in Bloggerville, none of us would like his conclusions.
He was particularly accurate in his later years with his analysis of the Iraq war and the lead up to it:
I think Vietnam and Iraq are different and yet there are a lot of parallels. There’s enough there to make you very
uncomfortable if the way you see these things is shaped by our experience in Vietnam, as it is for me and so many of the senior military people . . . .
I remember during Vietnam there was a generation of correspondents, some of the older ones, who were very tough on us younger correspondents because they had been in Korea or World War II and those wars had worked and there was a legitimacy to what we did then. And some of them were very quick to put down the younger reporters who were saying, “This doesn’t work.” I had vowed never to be one of those who says, “Guys, you just don’t know . . . I was in Vietnam and I know things you don’t know.” You know, pulling seniority and perhaps living in the past. So I was somewhat reluctant to talk too much about Iraq. But
gradually, as we got nearer to it, I began to speak out.
There were four or five points I was trying to make before the invasion. One was that we were going to punch our fist into the largest hornet’s nest in the world and end up doing the recruiting for Al Qaeda. I said that I thought that we would do the race to Baghdad very well—that the sheer military part would go well because our military is just very good, marvelous people, and our technology is awesome. But then the battle would change; we would be involved in urban guerrilla warfare, and things would turn against us.
I said that I thought the movie that they were all watching in the White House and the Pentagon was Patton, and the movie they should have been watching was The Battle of Algiers [the 1966 quasi-documentary film about the Algerian struggle for independence from France in the late 1950s].
There is a moment in a war—as there was in Vietnam and as there will be in this war—where your military superiority is undermined or neutralized by your political limitations. And I thought the biggest miscalculation of all was a great underestimation of the colonial factor, just as there had been in Vietnam. In Vietnam the U.S. absolutely had refused to factor in the effect of the French Indochina War. And I felt the specter of colonialism would be a problem again in a more complicated way with Islam.
The greatest miscalculation was not about the weapons of mass destruction, but the idea that we would be greeted as liberators. When the Bush people kept talking about that, alluding to what happened in France and Germany after World War II, well, anybody who had been in Vietnam would have been wary of it. There was just no way we were going to be greeted as liberators in this part of the world. The Iraqis might want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but they would not want us to do it for them. I was saying these things before they
happened and not just ex post facto.
He often alternated his subject matter, after writing a weighty tome he would settle down for a more mundane subject such as his book the Summer of 49. He was in fact on his way to interview a sports coach when he was killed.
The United States and the world is diminished by his loss. Too much of what passes for reporting these days is just shrill noise designed to further someones particular agenda. Authors who could provide the facts on complex ideas in a readable fashion a few and far between. Halberstam was one of those folks who could do that.
Rest in peace sir, and send good reports back here from the other side.