David Halberstam died yesterday at 73, far too young.
He was one of the great reporters of the Vietnam War: I took his fine early book, The Making of a Quagmire, with me in my head to Iraq as a model for how I wanted to write. Occasionally, someone would ask me who my model was and I always said, him, his book. And they’d read it.
It was a different press then: you read not only of his freedom as a journalist, despite the pressure of being involved in very high stakes politics as a reporter for what was once a great newspaper (The New York Times), but also the quality of his writing with enormous envy. The sheer quality of writing has decayed in the past several decades: to see just how much, you might read the Times obit of Halberstam compared with this one by Leftist journalist Murray Kempton of Newsday, then himself an old man only a few years from death, mourning General Matthew Ridgeway, one of America’s great soldiers.
It was also a different war. Vietnam was almost innocent. Ridgeway’s proudest boast was not his many feats of arms in World War Two, or that he had salvaged the Eighth Army from disaster in Korea, but that he had managed to keep us out of Vietnam for about 10 years. Ridgeway, like many of the great generals of World War Two, understood that defeat was possible for America, and feared it. They knew how near-run a thing World War One had been, knew just how weak America had been allowed to become in the 20s and the 30s afterwards, knew how hard and bloody it was going to be to defeat Hitler in the West and how risky an operation the Normandy landings really were. They knew, too, how badly American troops had suffered in Korea when MacArthur disregarded Chinese warnings that they would not tolerate an enemy army on their border. The generals who commanded in Vietnam preferred to forget such things: the limits of American power and the limits of military power. They had come of age in a great nation and a great military, and they could not imagine defeat; as for cruelty, it was for the good of the Vietnamese, “who don’t value life like we do.”
There has been nothing innocent about Iraq. We had the terrible lesson of Vietnam before us to remind us that military force and economic power have limits, and that not everyone wants to be like Americans. There has been only a very small repellent anti-war movement, not nearly large enough to cause people to be for the Iraq War as a way of being against them. In short, the field is wide open for millions of serious, dignified, well-dressed American citizens to say, You have wrecked Iraq and we want it to stop! You have ruined our military and we want it back! You have emptied the Treasury and we want that to stop, too! Yet there has been none of that.
And we could walk away from Vietnam. We can’t walk away from Iraq. This war is going to reverberate through the world, and through America, for a long time to come.
I wish David Halberstam would have been with us for another decade, to write another book, this one about Iraq and the Middle East. We can only hope his friend and comrade, Neil Sheehan, author of the amazing and beautiful A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, which is a cultural military history of the United States between World War Two and Vietnam, will write that book.