Friday, April 27, 2007

David Halberstam: Ave atque Vale

The tragic accidental death, on April 23, of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and writer, David Halberstam, brought back to me with incredible poignancy the impact of his influential book, The Best and the Brightest, a gripping narrative about the misuse of power that led to the war in Southeast Asia. Published in 1972, just three years before that futile conflict came to an end, it was the one book in a time of many extraordinary books about the war that got to the heart of the conflict while brilliantly profiling those who had planned and executed it in the name of yet another Cold War crusade to "contain communism."

Then it was the “communist menace,” in opposition to which we appeared to be engaged in a them-or-us struggle. Now our new enemy is "world terrorism." But underlying both conflicts, real or imagined, is a Manichean world view, which demonstrates that Puritanism has never died in the American psyche, coupled with the same kind of fear-mongering that our government deleteriously engaged in during the Vietnam era and has been again deploying to stifle dissent since September 11, 2001.

Both wars were sold to us and prosecuted using equal, if ever more sophisticated, forms of disinformation, coersion, and threats against those who opposed them of traitorous behavior, of giving aid and comfort to the “enemy.” The list is endless, just as the comparisons are. But Halberstam was, with the late Bernard Fall, one of the first reporters, who, from the very beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, saw through the lies and the distortions of information (especially the claim that we were winning the war), and, in articles for the New York Times and Harper’s magazine, brought the war in all its violence and brutality home to a country largely taken in by our government’s propaganda about why we were fighting a “do or die” struggle against a peasant population that was of no threat to us, just as the Iraqi people presented no danger to our country before we invaded them in 2003.

A year or two before I read Halberstam’s masterpiece, I had attempted to pour my own anguish about the war in Vietnam into a Maileresque novel, which I called “Reunion.” It was not a successfully achieved book, as I soon realized. There was too much anguish and outrage in it and too little art; too much of it was overtly political, and there was not much subtlety in the narrative (two publishers rejected it). So I put the typescript away in my safe deposit box with other rejected or unpublished manuscripts. Only recently, as I’ve been agonizing over our subsequently failed war in Iraq, did my work on “Reunion” come to mind; and when I took out the yellowed manuscript, carefully typewritten on “Corrasable Bond,” which was beginning to crumble at the edges, I discovered that I had, in addition to the novel, written a personal essay, as a postscript to the book. Dedicated to my son Jonathan, who was five years old at the time, the essay was an attempt to explain why I had written the novel and how our insane involvement in Vietnam had affected me. It was, as I discover now, also an attempt to describe my own condition, the state of my soul, as my country spilled the blood of its young, while pouring billions of dollars into a colossal failure of vision and intelligence.

In re-reading my essay, it occurs to me that there remain many parallels between the war in Southeast Asia and the war in Iraq—the political and military blunders that led to a sense of our being stuck in a “quagmire,” the stupidity masked as arrogance on the part of our leaders, the lack of historical understanding of other peoples and their cultures, the abuses of power, and the utter disregard of our government then and now for truth—not to speak of the fact that we appear still to believe that wars can be won by massive firepower alone, by “shock and awe.” Written thirty-seven years ago, when I was in my early thirties and was still two years away from publishing my first book, this essay reappears to me as though from a time-warp.

I post it in remembrance of those years, and particularly, as a tribute to the memory of David Halberstam, who was one of the writers whose own search for the truth encouraged me to seek truth in my own life and to attempt to uncover the untruths in my country’s actions and behavior in the world. As writer Gay Talese, a former colleague of Halberstam’s at the New York Times, has said in memory of his friend, “If we’d had just one young reporter like David Halberstam covering the White House or the Defense Department [during the run-up to the war] we would never have gotten into the mess we got into in Iraq.” In
The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam writes, "When I began work on the book I did not realize how pessimistic the intelligence people both at State and CIA had been about the proposed venture...if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the press and the public had known of the extent of the intelligence community's doubts, there would have been a genuine uproar about going to war." Sound familiar?

Reunion: postscript

For my first son, Jonathan Peter, who, when he saw the newsreel photograph of a North Vietnamese child standing by the body of his mother, killed during an American air-raid, asked me, “Dad, why is that boy crying?”

I began “Reunion” during the heaviest snowfall in the recorded history of my part of New England, and while my wife was pregnant with twins (Charles Olson had called to remind me that among the Algonquians, whose land we now call our own, the man himself always worked while his wife was in labor). I actually finished the first draft a few hours before my wife decided it was time to leave for the hospital. Months later, in the midst of a terrible late-June heat-wave, I thought to wrap up my story, with that accompanying sense of dissatisfaction, which seems always to lie at the edges of any elation you might feel upon the completion of a not insubstantial piece of work, or, for that matter, a piece of work, any piece of work, in a time when few of us are able to get out of bed in the morning let alone walk to the typewriter.

Yet, as I prowled in shorts through the upstairs rooms of our rented house on Vine Street, in Gloucester, feeling the sweat cool as it ran down my back and listening to the voices of my family picnicking under the locust trees below, the issue of that pregnancy, a boy and a girl, already crawling on the grass, wishing to be out there, rather than having to tinker with my own prose at the moment so unbearable to me, I realized that something was missing from “Reunion;” something further had to be said, else the record was incomplete.

Luckily Noam Chomsky’s magnificent book of essays, American Power and the New Mandarins, came to hand while I was looking over my winter’s work. Just to turn the pages, to live again in Chomsky’s controlled yet no less powerful moral indignation, his anger and his dismay, was to be plunged again into my own rage. I forgot the heat, which continued to smelt away the first days of July in a furnace of blinding light, in the excitement of reading, my fingers stained with the blue ink of the binding.

How could I have let myself forget?

Speaking of himself, Chomsky said that no person who had involved himself in anti-war activities as late as 1965 could claim any moral superiority. What had I done? True, I had dashed off scores of letters against the war to President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, to almost everyone in the Administration and those representing us in Congress; but surely I did not hurl my own body into the struggle. Aside from some teach-ins and a few demonstrations on Boston Common my wife and I had attended when I was in graduate school, I don’t believe I left Gloucester during the most difficult days of the resistance. And it was not for cowardice or fear. One who had not seen the police beat young women senseless had no idea of the kind of violence which awaited demonstrators in New York or Washington. No, I did not march against the war in Vietnam. I sat out—and am continuing to sit out—the war as it widens into all of Southeast Asia. So Chomsky has nothing to be ashamed of, considering his record. Still, I refuse to let myself off the hook, even though I believe there are thousands like me in America, some of them no less like the characters in “Reunion.”

Of course, I didn’t go to that tenth college reunion I’ve attempted to dramatize in the novel. I heard later that only a few of my classmates attended (my class was not particularly known for its cohesiveness). But in focusing upon my own school experience I had hoped to put into some form, to reflect, my growing disillusionment with all liberally conceived institutions. And in choosing a particularly common moment in real time (in this case a rite or ritual in which such institutions as colleges celebrate their success if not their existence), I sought to recreate or at least make dramatic use of a situation, common enough in my own social experience and that of my generation, for the purposes of a limited fictional examination of certain problems, attitudes, habits of mind I believed to be exemplary of my generation.

There had been so much talk of the “novel as history” and of the novelist as a historian or journalist of events, who, using the techniques and insights gained in the making of fiction as a means of revealing the workings of events and the characters of their participants, recreates an event and calls it a “novel,” that I wanted to do the reverse (like Camus, I seem to have an almost organic intolerance for the modish). That is, I wished merely to continue to do what most writers of fiction have always done—namely, imagine the events and the persons involved in them, create them out of the whole cloth of my imagination. I did not wish to go to a college reunion, but rather to imagine that I had gone. I did not wish to report the real imaginatively, but to invent such a situation. So I make no claim about the accuracy of historical or social events…the only accuracy I claim is my attempt at what Goethe called “exact imaginative fantasy.”

Above all, I was seeking a means of setting down in cold type, hopefully in a dramatic way, some of the effects upon myself at least, of the most tragic moment in my country’s history since the Civil War. I cannot truthfully call the Vietnam Adventure a necessary war (as if wars ever are) or even, as some have suggested, a historical or political blunder—a mistake!—for that might seem to validate what I believe to be one of the most reprehensible acts of human aggression in the history of mankind (the total effect of that aggression in terms of human lives, destruction of land, annihilation of practically an entire culture, is to my mind a far more serious act of aggression than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki because it has been done with a calculation far more intelligent of its results, and with a deep foreknowledge of its long-term consequences, not only for the Vietnamese people but for all of us, all over the world). I wanted to put down on paper almost exactly how I felt, what I did and thought, while this country I still love for what she could yet be was shipwrecking herself on an obscenity so profound and terrible as to drive any American who called himself a moral person to despair for his or her own implication in it.

In anguish a dear friend once hurled at me:

“How can they let men like McNamara, Rusk and Bundy go out of office as though they were crossing the street, rewarded by being simply transferred to other prominent positions within the same Establishment? Those men are responsible for the deaths of thousands of people! They’re murderers, war criminals! Don’t talk to me about Eichmann!”

I replied:

“How can we go on from one day to the next untroubled by our own complicity? We did nothing to stop Rusk and McNamara! We’re war criminals, too!”

How familiar it must all sound to you…

Most of all, I wanted to leave my children a record of how I felt during these terrible years, something on paper to add to their mental picture of an over-weight, heavily bearded ogre in dungarees and faded blue work shirt, who barked at them from the dark, guarded caverns of his depression, if they so much as laughed while he was listening to the latest body-count, or talking back to Spiro Agnew in the hermetic, and stacked, courtroom of his mind, where all the scores were settled in favor of justice and freedom—justice and freedom for his people, not for their adversaries, real or imagined.

I suppose none of us will emerge (if indeed we do) the same from Southeast Asia. I do not mean that one had to be in Vietnam, to go there, to fight or to kill there, or to observe the killing. Vietnam is in the soul of each one of us, as well as in those daily body-counts we all came to feed on in our different hungers. Each man, woman and child in America is a murderer. Lyndon Johnson and his Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Nixon and his Madison Avenue crew, are not the only war criminals: every one of us appears before a Nuremberg Tribunal when we come to consciousness each day. A hundred years from now, if there is an America, if there are human beings as such left on this earth, people will shake their heads in dumb disbelief that the most enlightened, the richest, the freest, the most powerful nation on earth could have stooped to Vietnam.

Yet I thought to write my story, to leave it as it was. There wasn’t much hope of publication. The market was already glutted with every conceivable “topical” book, novel, memoir, pamphlet or polemic. Besides, I’m so reluctant a purveyor of my own work that by the time I even got round to showing it to an editor [as of November 1970 two major publishing houses had rejected it] what was left of any reading public for “Reunion” would have long tired of such stuff, the urgency, perhaps even the stridency, of its tone and content, if not of the fictive act itself. Certainly I had hoped to transcend immediate political and social issues in the story, but they got in through the back door and a couple of open windows. What could I do? I suppose I could have rewritten the whole thing from scratch; but I didn’t really want to disturb the original impulse behind the book, and the rush of feeling that made me hurl it all down on paper morning after morning, as the snow fell softly outside and my little boy made angels in it or sang quietly to himself as he made a ship of a piece of granite ledge protruding blackly from snow so white it was blue, his own secure world about to be shattered by the arrival of two siblings. So I would touch it up, stick it in my safe deposit box at the Cape Ann Bank and Trust Company, leave it for the kids. I thought to turn my back on Vietnam, to get on with other work, my conscience salved, my statement “made,”—my existential act, enacted. But I suddenly realized how impossible that would be.

I wish I could say that the war and its attendant events and circumstances have so paralyzed me that I have been unable to act physically, to show my anger: if not to translate it into effective political action, then at least, as Frantz Fanon advises Blacks, to use rage therapeutically. But the truth of the matter is that I have continually put the war out of my mind. Yet, paradoxically, I have found myself almost compulsively reading every magazine article or book on Vietnam I come across—and major books like Chomsky’s have been spawned by this atrocity. I have found myself following campaigns, search and destroy missions, by maps in the Sunday New York Times and on nightly televised news programs. I discover that scores of place-names in a nearly unpronounceable tongue are as familiar to me as the those of generals Mark Clark and Matthew Ridgeway. How can this be, I ask myself—an isolato?

I’ve seethed in my arm chair watching what passes for the war itself on TV, or in violent arguments about it with relatives and friends (and one’s presumably closest friends have by no means all reviled this war). But it has ended there. Next morning I have been back at the typewriter, or with my nose stuck in Havelock’s Preface to Plato, Thoreau’s Maine Woods.

So my war record is an atrocity itself, which is why reading Chomsky has made me want to record this spill-over from “Reunion.” Without it, the evidence I leave my children (small as it is, insignificant as it will seem) of myself in these years, in which my son wanted continually to know why people were “shooting at each other,” in Vietnam, and “where is Vietnam, Dad-0, a long way from Gloucester?” would be distorted. Indeed, I would seem to have falsified it in living through my protagonist, Jason Makrides, in expressing in his words all the things I myself wanted to say to other people, in the way that you can write them, away from the battle, its heat. I suppose ultimately I have assigned to my protagonist the kind of sustained moral fervor I did not possess. But I wanted my three children to have this record, too.

For art is a record of sorts, even though I believe present “reality” may well have obviated the necessity for most, if not all, of the forms and uses of art we have previously known. Perhaps “art” itself is no longer possible of creation, or even useful. At any rate, I do not think it possible, for a long time anyway, to consider the creation of a novel or poem in any kind of purity of thought (perhaps I ought to write “moral vacuum”) or retirement from the world. The world touches us at every moment as Vietnam has lacerated our consciences, and it is no longer possible to escape; for the very forms of escape will have been conditioned by the objects and events from which we seek to escape, in an irreversible pornography of violence.

Chomsky writes that “those who were opposed to the war merely because of its costs or its atrocities will fall away.” I agree. They will not be able to fall away soon enough. A few will remain. Survivors, in a way, of Vietnam—veterans. I believe myself to be one of those people…

In 1959, I traveled to Florence, Italy thinking to study Dante and Romance Philology. Instead, I discovered the work of Cesare Pavese, whose earthy Piedmontese localism reinforced what I was learning about my country from Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, which I had propitiously chosen to place in my suitcase at the last minute. Both writers, the Italian Marxist, infatuated with what he thought were the limitless possibilities of America, and the American Poundian, who read his own writers partly through Dante’s eyes, led me to discover America as lying inside me as well as in Olson’s and my home town. When I did come home again to Gloucester, I was ready to dedicate myself to the study of America, her history, as it declared itself in the words of her writers and poets and in the accounts of her explorers.

By then the very name “America” began to fill me with a kind of awe. I could wander in the stacks of any library in Europe looking for Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. Those names and the magical titles of their books—Walden, Leaves of Grass, Nature—were so precious to me that I was afraid of violating them by the act of reading. But read I did, and I found those books held treasures every bit as rare and valuable to me as the contents of the Florentine palaces and museums I visited daily.

In the intervening years I tried to imagine, if not to make, the kind of life I wanted: independent, deeply familial, local. Possibly literary. I knew I did not ultimately wish to join my life with that of institutions. After only a few years of teaching, I found that I could not stand even to pay lip service to bureaucracies or administrations. I had a kind of visceral desire not only to harass but to subvert them. They seemed always to want to get between me and my students, to disrupt the real process of learning, the endless talk, the dialectics, the living together. Naturally, the chief criticism I received as a teacher was that I encouraged my students in what some considered their “worst traits,” notably their rebelliousness. So I suppose my own character would not permit me to realize what I had been led to believe was the ideal intellectual and artistic life of my own teachers in the 1950s, that of the academy.

Incidentally, I discovered, like many other writers, that writing, and teaching about writing or writers, were, if not mutually exclusive, at least, to me personally, incompatible. Yearning for independence, or perhaps simply a liberation from institutions, I left the academic world on the threshold of what my colleagues would have called a “promising career.”

I had already finished my second novel at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, and I revised it as we began the insane bombing of North Vietnam. I was pleased about my work. I thought I had written a quite careful, workmanlike novel about expatriates, based on nearly three years’ experience and observations in Europe. It was tight, accurate, symbolistic—in a word, “well made,” exactly what I’d been taught to regard as the essence of contemporary writing.

But one morning it occurred to me what a fraud my book was. Around me was a society—a world!—in turmoil and all I could do was describe people sitting in canvas beach chairs at the Lido, sipping Tokay and reading dated novels. It was decadent. Worse, it was reactionary—I mean not only politically (for any absence of political vision in our own time is reactionary), but reactionary in the manner of those academic novels and stories of the 1940s and 50s, which were not responses (hopefully experimental) to social and political realities in America, but were instead re-castings of an already dated European avant-gardism. Not the novel as “news” then, as an active engagement with the literal in all its guises, but the novel as fable, myth, allegory—the novel as “literature,” as though the writers were obeying Northrop Frye’s stultifying orthodoxy that poems and novels can only come from other poems and novels. It was writing manufactured from the inside; you might almost say with next year’s college reading lists, departmental budgets, and graduate theses in mind. It was what you might have predicted post-industrial capitalism would produce, given mass education and the ultimate institutionalization of all the arts. It was a dangerous and unhealthy drift, and like many in my generation, who’d gone to college and graduate school under the aegis of the New Criticism, I found myself in it almost absentmindedly. You turned your back on life, you got absorbed in “art.” You lost the world.

Then came Vietnam.

It’s as though I’d been asleep for ten years—maybe all my life!

The Class of 1969, rightly called “the finest graduating class in America’s history,” has left the platform, like my own, to scatter to the four winds. The best of them (I have known many, and even taught some, although I had everything to learn from them and next to nothing to teach) are everything I wished myself to be ten years ago but did not know how to go about it. They would not stomach the lies of Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk. They dubbed Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, “The Mad Bomber,” called him a war criminal, and rightly so. That the inventor of war “with moral restraint” (the term could have been coined in the defendant’s boxes at Nuremberg) now directs a “humanitarian” World Bank is no surprise to them. They view American Imperialism as a reality, not a term of “leftist” propaganda; to them enslaving a person economically is only another method of killing him.

They know that Richard Nixon, whose name was engraved on the moon while millions starved on earth, is nothing more than a cynical politician, and that in his heart of hearts he has only contempt for the “forgotten Americans,” that Silent Majority, who put him in office and upon whose ignorance and fear he daily plays.

They know, too, that things are not going to get better, that the Nixon Administration has no intention of stopping the war in Southeast Asia until it will reap the greatest political benefit from such an action. They know that not one finger will be lifted in Washington, beyond the nominal rhetoric which displaces action, to feed those who are dying in rural America and the inner cities, to confront the vicious racism of the ruling classes and their minions, to educate the young beyond the cant and propaganda of the new American Imperialism, or to ensure each American of the best medical care available as a human and civil right and not a privilege. They know, as well, that alcoholism and drug addiction are not sicknesses in themselves, as the President implies, to be eradicated by punishing their victims in a repressive legal system, but rather they are symptoms of a national disease, emanating from the very centers of corruption and privilege.

They know, also, that it will be practically impossible to turn back the course of American militarism, the support of which has made us a captive people in our own land, and subjected a tiny country like Vietnam to a destruction far greater than that visited upon Nazi Germany.

Because of this, many of the Class of 1969 and 1970—and how many more?—will lie dead in Southeast Asia before the year is out. Some will go to prison, others into exile; many will be forced underground. Doubtless the great majority will “settle down when they get married,” as one condescending commentator noted; but do you recall this moderate voice speaking from the Harvard platform?

For attempting to achieve the values which

you taught us to cherish, your response has

been astounding. It has escalated from the

presence of the police on the campuses to

their uses of clubs and gas. I have asked many

of my classmates what they wanted me to say

today. “Talk with them about hypocrisy,” most

of them said. “Tell them they have broken the

best heads in the country. Tell them they

have destroyed our confidence and lost our


What had I to say ten years ago? In my commencement address, I quoted Yeats—a fascist!—in the First Congregational Church of Brunswick, Maine: “The center cannot hold…” What did I know of centers, of social cohesion and dissolution? No one in my class had wanted to make a better world and got his head broken for it. No one in my class lay dead in a rice paddy. Lamely I spoke of the duty of the artist to make art “with the validity of a philosophical basis,” though I have suffered ever since in trying to hold myself to such a task. Under the deadening influence of an English department that viewed literature as a closed system of images, symbols, myths and allegories, hopefully with a Christian or humanistic message, which you dutifully decoded with the help of the New Criticism, I faulted the Beat Generation writers (the only vital voices of the time) for what I called their “minimal protest.” I made a few token remarks about the vulgarity of the big cars then crowding the highways—“chrome-plated egg cartons,” I called them, receiving, in response, a few indulgent graduation-day chuckles from some of the very parents who had arrived in those cars. I remarked on the stultifying conformity of the Eisenhower years; yet I shaved my beard off the night before commencement. Tail between my legs, I escaped to Europe that fall.

And now, it seems, I am back where I began. The two American writers I most loved and respected are dead: Olson, of cancer; Kerouac, of drink. Reading Dr. Sax and Maggie Cassidy (Kerouac’s two neglected Lowell novels) had freed me of the old prose stance and taught me the possibilities of a lyric repossession of the authentic past, while Olson pointed me into the future with the tools of mythology as epistemology not art-form. It was a good feeling to sit up here on Thomas Riggs’ hill in Gloucester, knowing that Charles was down in his house at the Fort overlooking the harbor, and that Jack might well have been working away in his bedroom in Lowell, not far from the woods where Thoreau had lived and walked. I often thought of us as “spies of all the gods,” in Allen Ginsberg’s phrase, a kind of Massachusetts brotherhood of the Craft, though we were never together in the same room and I had not met Jack.

With their death a force seems to have gone out of my own life, a pungency from the very air of New England. From my study window I watch the year turn: the lush green hills in their summer volupte` of lemon-colored light; elms suddenly gray naked witches with a thousand bony fingers; red sun bleeding out of the winter sky into the cold dark mountains. I sit here reading Thoreau and Melville—and now John Winthrop and Thomas Morton. But something has happened, something deeper than disillusionment, loss of youth, disappointment; something more tragic. Something is broken in America, in me, too. This I do not think I was able to write about in “Reunion.” But I want to try in the time that’s left. For now I offer this story, faulty, incomplete, tentative, as part of the process, as beginning, or just simply entry.

Gloucester, 1970

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