[xmca] Halberstam, r.i.p. and thanks

From: Peter Smagorinsky <smago who-is-at uga.edu>
Date: Wed Apr 25 2007 - 12:06:35 PDT

 <http://www.nytimes.com/> <http://www.nytimes.com/> The New York Times
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April 25, 2007

An Appraisal

A Skeptical Vietnam Voice Still Echoes in the Fog of Iraq


The news reports streaming out of Vietnam
etnam/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> in the fall of 1963 were unsettling to
President Kennedy
d_kennedy/index.html?inline=nyt-per> , and in a White House meeting the talk
turned to a particularly irritating young reporter named David Halberstam
am/index.html?inline=nyt-per> .

"How old is Halberstam?" one of the participants asked, according to a
recording unearthed by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University
of Virginia
ity_of_virginia/index.html?inline=nyt-org> .

"About 25," said William Bundy, a presidential adviser. In fact, he was 29.

"He was a reporter when he was in college," said McGeorge Bundy, the
national security adviser and a professor at Harvard
_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> when Mr. Halberstam was a student
there. "So I know exactly what you've been up against."

He laughed. Mr. Halberstam, then working for The New York Times, went on to
demonstrate through a series of forceful dispatches that the chaotic reality
unfolding on the ground in Vietnam bore little resemblance to the upbeat
accounts offered by American presidents and generals who were prosecuting
the war. Journalism and, more broadly, the relationship between the American
people and their elected servants in Washington, was never the same again.
Mr. Halberstam, who died Monday in a car accident, set a standard for
skepticism of official war-time pronouncements that carries on to this day.

During four years of war in Iraq
aq/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> , American reporters on the ground in Baghdad
have often found themselves coming under criticism remarkably similar to
that which Mr. Halberstam endured: those journalists in Baghdad, so said the
Bush administration and its supporters, only reported the bad news. They
were dupes of the insurgents. They were cowardly and unpatriotic. Indeed,
reporters who filed dispatches pointing out the pitfalls experienced by
American troops sometimes found it difficult to secure an embed with an
American military unit. Other reporters - including this one - were
sometimes excluded from official briefings inside the Green Zone.

"Frankly, part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel
very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors," Paul D.
tz/index.html?inline=nyt-per> , then the deputy secretary of defense, said
in 2004.

Mr. Halberstam and his colleagues in Vietnam, like Neil Sheehan of United
Press International and Malcolm W. Browne of The Associated Press, both
later of The Times, had it a lot tougher than reporters in Iraq do today, if
only because they were the first. Few journalists with major American
newspapers or television networks had dared to publicly question the
veracity of America's military leaders - or an American president - in
wartime, least of all a 29-year-old reporter not that long out of college.

By his own account, Mr. Halberstam had gone to Vietnam a believer in the
American project, but found himself increasingly disillusioned by events he
was witnessing up close. The public representations made by American leaders
- of numbers of Vietcong killed, of South Vietnamese soldiers trained -
seemed so at odds with what Mr. Halberstam and the other reporters were
seeing that they came to regard the official briefings as little more than
acts of comedy.

That skepticism, in the American press, was new. "The press at the time, and
by that I mean the editors, were living in the shadow of World War II," Mr.
Sheehan said in an interview. "The senior military and the senior diplomats
had enormous credibility with the news media. If General Patton gave you a
briefing on what he was going to do to the Germans - and he always brought
the press with him, because he thought it was important - you could expect a
pretty straightforward account."

Mr. Halberstam, an intense, sometimes intimidating man, came into direct
conflict with President Kennedy - who pressed to have him pulled from Saigon
- and with his own editors at The Times, who sometimes questioned the
divergence between his and the official accounts.

In one incident, recounted in Mr. Sheehan's book, "A Bright Shining Lie,"
Mr. Halberstam exploded at his editors in New York, who had asked him about
an article filed by a competitor that more closely tracked the official
version. "If you mention that woman's name to me one more time I will resign
repeat resign and I mean it repeat mean it," Mr. Halberstam wrote in a

In another incident in 1963, Mr. Halberstam filed an article about a series
of arrests staged by the Saigon government that was flatly contradicted by
the State Department in Washington. After much debate, editors at The Times
decided to run two articles on its front page - one from Washington, based
on the State Department's version, and the other from Mr. Halberstam. "Three
days later," Mr. Sheehan wrote, "other events forced the State Department to
admit that the official version had been wrong."

Similar clashes between the Bush administration and the press have unfolded
during the war in Iraq, particularly in its early phases. In late 2003 and
early 2004, as security around Iraq was deteriorating, reporters in Iraq
were sometimes mystified by the rosy briefings they were given inside the
Green Zone. In the streets where they lived and worked, they witnessed car
bombings and assassinations, while the spokesmen for the Bush administration
talked mostly about smiling Iraqis and freshly painted schools.

"There were two realities - one inside the Green Zone, and the reality every
day, talking to people in the street," said Anthony Shadid, a Washington
Post correspondent whose Iraq dispatches won a Pulitzer Prize
zes/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> in 2004. "They never did intersect."

In speeches and television appearances, Mr. Halberstam did not hesitate to
compare America's predicament in Iraq to its defeat in Vietnam. And he was
not afraid to admit that his views on Iraq had been influenced by his
experience in the earlier war.

"I just never thought it was going to work at all," Mr. Halberstam said of
Iraq during a public appearance in New York in January. "I thought that in
both Vietnam and Iraq, we were going against history. My view - and I think
it was because of Vietnam - was that the forces against us were going to be
hostile, that we would not be viewed as liberators. We were going to punch
our fist into the largest hornets' nest in the world."

The war in Iraq, of course, churns on, and its outcome is not yet
determined. But four years after the invasion, most of the rosy talk from
the White House has faded away. In its place is language far more somber -
and more realistic - than what came before. If the American people now have
a clearer picture of the war their soldiers are fighting in Iraq, it is
largely thanks to the example set by Mr. Halberstam.



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