Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Godspeed, David Halberstam

I was deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the death of David Halberstam. History 388 students should all read his book "The Best and the Brightest," a cautionary tale about American hubris. He profiled the "bright young men" of the Kennedy administration and led readers to the inescapable conclusion that they believed completely in American omnipotence, the ability of America to impose its will on any people, any situation anywhere in the world. Then they should go on to read his Vietnam reportage, highly critical of Kennedy policy, which so enraged Saint Jack Kennedy that he lobbied to get Halberstam fired. Well, we all know who was right about Vietnam in the long run.

Or you can sample any number of other Halberstam masterpieces, small and large: his portrait of the firehouse near his apartment on 66th street in New York City and the men who had suffered so greviously on September ll, his many works on sports, his masterful portrait of the l950s in America. There were few writers more perceptive or insightful about a wide range of American phenomena.

Halberstam wrote a letter to his daughter a few years ago. I thought the following lines were especially a propos in view of our study of the Vietnam conflict and the growing difficulties in Iraq:

"I do not think I was alone in what I went through in those years. I think I was simply a part of a great national interior debate taking place throughout the country; we were reexamining not just America in Vietnam, but America itself. If we doubted that we were in the right war, or even on the right side, it did not mean that we loved our country any less. If anything, knowing America’s faults and imperfections, perhaps I love it more than your grandfather and great-grandfather, for perhaps I love it more wisely. During all those years, I kept on my desk a small quote from Albert Camus which he had written during France’s war in Algeria: ‘I should like to be able to love my country and love justice.”

I have thought long and hard about Vietnam over the last 20 years, for something like this does not lightly leave you, and I have decided that the true innocents are not those — as Washington would have it — who are afraid to use force and thus do not understand the real world, but in fact those who still think that in this day and age we can impose our values and our will upon peasants by force. And your godfather was right: I wish in fact that someone had shown me a photo of Vietcong bodies and I had cried."

I too believe that you should be able to love your country and love justice. Rest well, David Halberstam. Your immortality is assured in your writings.


german said...

yeah it has been a rough couple of weeks for the literary world kurt vonegut was also lost a couple of weeks ago. he verbal description of dresden after the fire bombing still sticks in my mind and it was a verbal description instead of visual and that really sticks with me

moville said...

Yes, I forgot about Vonnegut...I read him somewhat, but he never quite caught my imagination the way halberstam did. not so much the political books, but the one on the fifties and firehouse. he was an historian who wrote like a reporter, and vice versa, he really took both responsibilities very seriously.