David Halberstam: Weekly Standard denounces his brand of war reporting

Historians in the News

The accidental death of David Halberstam, onetime war correspondent and author of The Best and the Brightest (1972), has inspired the sort of mournful, sometimes impassioned, obituary language reserved for deceased journalists. THE SCRAPBOOK, in its wisdom, looks upon this as a form of professional courtesy: Only among journalists, after all, is the death of a journalist a national calamity.

Yet Halberstam's demise has yielded an unexpected chief mourner: Democratic foreign policy guru Richard Holbrooke, who first met Halberstam in 1963 when Holbrooke was a Foreign Service officer in Saigon. Holbrooke wrote an op-ed memoir in the Washington Post about Halberstam's Vietnam reporting ("In long overpowering sentences, he conveyed deep anger and a sense of betrayal") and recounted what he must have assumed was a charming story about Halberstam and fellow journalist Neil Sheehan who, in Holbrooke's word, "despised" the senior U.S. commander in South Vietnam, Gen. Paul Harkins. "After some wine," wrote Holbrooke, "they conducted a mock trial of the four-star general for incompetence and dereliction of duty. In his rumbling, powerful voice, David pronounced Harkins 'guilty' of each charge, after which Neil loudly carried out the 'sentence': execution by imaginary firing squad against the back wall of the restaurant."

Next, Holbrooke turned up in a brief Halberstam essay by George Packer in the New Yorker. Once again, Halberstam's dyspepsia was front and center: He felt a "personal, vengeful rage" against American officialdom in South Vietnam, according to Packer, and at a Fourth of July party at the

ambassador's residence in Saigon--THE SCRAPBOOK could see this coming--"refused to shake hands with General Paul Harkins." Then Holbrooke made an interesting observation: "David changed war reporting forever," he said to Packer. "He made it not only possible but even romantic to write that your own side was misleading the public about how the war was going."

From THE SCRAPBOOK's perspective, this was one of those unintentionally revealing moments, for not only did Holbrooke capture the essence of the Halberstam mythology in one sentence, but he diagnosed everything that has gone wrong with American war journalism in the half-century since Halberstam and Neil Sheehan passed through Saigon.

Of course, it was always possible for American journalists to write critically about their "own side" in wartime--even George Washington had his detractors--but until Halberstam (and others) it was not considered "romantic." Now, alas, such pathology in journalism is not just pertinent to careers, but obligatory for success. It certainly explains the determination of the media to concentrate on failure, to marshal its facts in support of ideology, and to regard its "own side" with suspicion and hostility, no matter the circumstances. As legacies go, David Halberstam's is mixed: "Romantic" it may be--but highly destructive, too.

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Michael Green - 5/16/2007

Perhaps the editors of the Weekly Standard, being guilty of lying and inured to it from government officials, cannot understand why someone watching young men die for no particularly good policy reason would feel angry at those lying about it.