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Last best salvo

Remembering the dogged David Halberstam


There’s an interesting story about David Halberstam and his early reporting career as a combat journalist in Vietnam for The New York Times. As Halberstam started submitting stories that conflicted with the government’s account in the early days of the war, President Kennedy contacted the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and asked him to reassign his young reporter. Sulzberger refused and even had Halberstam cancel a planned vacation, lest it would appear the paper was caving to presidential pressure. Halberstam went on to pen a 1965 book called The Making of a Quagmire, which, well, panned the effort in Vietnam.

Oh, how the times have changed. Not concerning bungled wars in far-off places with ambiguous goals and poor leadership. We still have those.

No, what we painfully missed at the onset of the Iraq war was a David Halberstam. The New York Times was no help this time: They gave us Judith Miller, the stenographer who dutifully copied down rumors about Iraqi nuclear reactors from sources provided by the Bush administration. Compare that to Halberstam, who would wade through rice paddies and count bodies to verify the government’s reports on battlefield results. When the Pentagon’s numbers were out of whack from Halberstam’s count, whom did the public believe?

Halberstam was an imposing figure in person, tall with a physical presence, a deep, booming voice, and plenty of anger, which he admitted helped him as a journalist. There was plenty to be angry about, too, because Halberstam reviled folly and ambition and incompetence, especially in authority. Halberstam was always a foxhole guy—he sympathized with the grunts who sweated or froze on the lines, fighting wars designed by career politicians for dubious domestic political goals. There was enough anger to write a couple dozen books on a variety of topics—wars, 9/11 firefighters, football coaches and pennant races—all of them more or less relating how leadership screwed the ordinary Joe.

The Coldest Winter, his latest book, is also his last, because Halberstam died in a car crash just a few days after turning in his manuscript. It’s also his most ambitious, a 650-page monolith on the Korean War, from presidential cabinet meetings to placement of platoons on Pork Chop Hill. It’s also likely Halberstam’s way of trying to get to the bottom of things, to the source, in figuring out why the United States has had a thing for pointless meat grinders. Korea, after all, was our first stab on the stage of international relations as a superpower, a role Americans view with deep ambivalence.

Halberstam constructs a thorough political and military history of the “forgotten” war—a war started largely over a bureaucratic error, when Truman’s Secretary of State failed to include South Korea in a speech on the Asian defense perimeter against Communism, spurring Stalin to give the go-ahead to a North Korean invasion. American forces were caught completely off guard by the invasion and nearly pushed out of Korea, when General Douglas MacArthur saved the day with an ambitious amphibious landing behind enemy lines. Unfortunately his hubris led him to cross into North Korea, where Chinese armies ambushed his forces, and for which he was relieved of command. Two years of bloody fighting led to a stalemate and the country split in two, just as it had been before the war.

According to The Coldest Winter, MacArthur’s aggression, and Truman’s acquiescence, was the result of pressure from far-right anti-communists in Congress, who pushed the president to be overly aggressive against communism. The same pressures drew Kennedy into Vietnam. In short, the fear of appearing weak had set into the American government like rot early in the Truman administration and apparently is still with us today.

 While we might assume that Halberstam would be driven to pessimism or despair by the aggressive bungling of foreign policy after Vietnam—especially by the Iraq War, where the mistakes and hubris are more pronounced—his last book is calmer, more thoughtful than The Best and the Brightest, his penultimate insiders’ look at administrative policy-making in Vietnam, which was almost maniacal in its narrow focus on the D.C. politics and its personalities. Maybe it’s because Vietnam was personal for Halberstam. He was there. He saw the killing first-hand.

And if there’s anything wrong with Halberstam’s books, it’s that they’re too contemporary, too narrow for a long shelf life, too focused on the “players” to be considered long-standing books of history. To confuse the events of Korea and Vietnam as the result of a few poor decisions by policy-makers is to make the same tragic blunders those policy-makers did. After all, eons of Asian history had more to do with the outcome of Vietnam and Korea than any decision made by a U.S. president—other than to choose to go to war.

But The Longest Winter is different. It’s broader, more akin to the popular histories of Civil War writers Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton, for example. Good, readable military histories. Instead of descending into despair by an apparent never-ending string of U.S. foreign policy disasters, maybe Halberstam found some measure of perspective and perhaps comfort in history.

Fact & Fiction and the Missoula Public Library host “Out of the Book,” a documentary remembering David Halberstam and discussing The Coldest Winter at the Missoula Public Library Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7 PM. Free.

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