Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam, R.I.P

The untimely death of David Halberstam will, I hope, provide a peg for new discussion about the proper role of dissent against war.

May only generals assert that a war cannot be won? Is it the troops, or is it the strategists who are being attacked when war policy is criticized? What are we to think of those who, during wartime, say that the war is wrong (when else is there an opportunity to do so)?

A Pulitzer-Prize winning correspondent whose early Vietnam War despatches expressed a pessimism about the prospects of "success" that would not become the conventional wisdom for years, Halberstam would a decade after his reporting write a best seller about the long list of very smart men who thought that war had to be fought, and won.

"The Best and the Brightest," published in 1972 as the war still raged on, chronicled the creeping dementia and paranoia of three administrations. By then, opposition to that war was widespread, as is opposition to the Iraq now. Halberstam's patriotism was not questioned, his family was not attacked, he was not the object of an smear campaign.

Not many would characterize the war counsels in the current administration as the best and the brightest minds of our time but it is important to remember that even the pathologically brilliant can be astonishingly unwise. It is an equal opportunity affliction. But, smart or not, being unwise in matters of war is catastrophic and unforgivable. And mistaking critics for enemies only make matters worse.

In an online chat with the Washington Post in 2005 Halberstam spoke with a credibility few could rival of the Iraq war and its makers and the parallels to earlier leaders and Vietnam:
"There's a real danger here right now of something that happened during the Vietnam War which is an administration being more and more caught up in what it believes are its own truths but which many, many others increasingly see as self-deceptions. When that happens the administration often becomes, as happened with the Johnson administration, more and more isolated and it begins to see those who wish it well but dissent from it on this issue, not as friendly but reluctant critics but as sworn enemies."
Only today, Vice President Dick Cheney chose to criticize Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who dared to say the war in Iraqis "lost," (and) likened Bush to President Lyndon Johnson, saying Johnson ordered troop escalations in Vietnam in an attempt "to save his political legacy" only to watch U.S. casualties climb steadily.

"Some Democratic leaders seem to believe that blind opposition to the new strategy in Iraq is good politics," Cheney said. "Sen. Reid himself has said that the war in Iraq will bring his party more seats in the next election. It is cynical to declare that the war is lost because you believe it gives you political advantage."

Only today, Jessica Lynch told Congress that the Pentagon had tried to "to turn her into a "little girl Rambo", and accused military chiefs of using "elaborate tales" to try to make her into a hero of the Iraq war."

Only today, U.S. Army Specialist Bryan O'Neal told the same House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform he was ordered to conceal from Pat Tillman's family the fact that his fellow Ranger was killed by friendly fire.

Is it too soon for Halberstam to be spinning in his grave?

1 comment:

Bob said...

Bill Moyers tonight skeptically asks top "name" journalists some of these same, excellent questions, in a PBS documentary aptly entitled "Buying The War." In an odd quirk of history, and a good reminder that none of us is perfect, the late, great David Halberstam, made his bones reporting the not so happy news of a war for which Moyers was himself spokesman/apologist. But that was another life. Ultimately, being a good journalist is as thankless, and dangerous, a task as being an honorable press spokesman, since the constituencies of each profession tend to have only thin desires for the actual truth. As we dig deep into the institutional failures that made US media the dumbstruck stenographers they became in 2003, may I suggest what it really means to say journalists must "speak truth to power"? Any journo with backbone and a keen sense for a good story can write that our leaders are lying to us. And so they should! But how many have the courage--or possibly the career death wish--to tell the American people they are wrong? Now, that's what I call speaking truth to power.