The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Suicide of a Ruling Class (book review)

David Halberstam
The Best and the Brightest


History – remembrance of a past – has a strange way of shifting over time. Contemporary history is conceived in the minds of each in the uncertainties of the moment. Our ideas of events are shaped by our limited experience of them, our position in relation to them, the haphazard reports of media. A confused conception exists in the general consciousness. The work of historians destroys this confusion, replacing it not with what occurred, but with the system, the chronology, the morality tale that their years of reflection and writing have brought them to. We hope through this process of filtered and selective memory to be wiser for the triumphs and failures of our predecessors.

David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is one of those classics that defines events that new generations were unable to experience themselves. It is huge, like all major works dealing with the Vietnam War it needs to be downright Homeric in its scale. It needs to be epic. Here, the Greek tragedy is provided its magnitude by the contrast between the promise and brilliance of a new generation of American leaders, sharply counterpoised with the disaster they caused in Vietnam. It is a vast, sprawling collection of anecdotes and sketches that attempt to show how these people brought up the catastrophe.

The promise is apparent from the beginning. There is the glamour of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot”. There is a sense that this young, modern, industrial nation might no longer be dominated by the “old White Southerners from small towns” that ran Congress. After Kennedy’s death, the promise paradoxically becomes, if anything, greater. Lyndon Johnson leads the Democrats to a glorious, overwhelming victory in the 1964 campaign. A man who was once the master of the Senate as a legislator, would now pass the great acts to redeem America: desegregating the South, launching the Great Society and the War on Poverty, and putting down the bases for healthcare provision for the neediest and the old.


Though LBJ could never replace the Golden Boy that was JFK, he could console himself with the shining CVs of his cabinet. And indeed it was impressive. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara is a number cruncher who saved Ford Motor Company. He had once been a brilliant student of philosophy and even as Secretary maintained a voracious appetite for fact, so that even as others in government “frolicked, he plowed through the unabridged Toynbee.” General Maxwell Taylor is a politically savvy soldier-scholar and an apparent expert on limited wars and counter-insurgency. Averell Harriman is an old Kremlinologist who – a septuagenarian – can still be said to be ambitious. General William Westmoreland, the man to eventually command 500,000 men in Vietnam, has a brilliant record and could not have a profile more suited for the air of a general than if God himself had chiseled him from marble. We have detailed sketches of all of these men in all their talents, flaws, ambitions and failings. The question becomes: how did these Captains of Industry, Rhodes Scholars, Harvard Deans, Ivy Leaguers and West Pointers – the “best” products of the American ruling class – come to fail so completely?

This is not a book about Vietnam. As such, there will be some difficulty in understanding why U.S. policy failed there, why propping the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem did not succeed, why the Americans had to intervene. Diem is repeatedly and casually described as “feudal” but there is little on how he ruled. We get a sense that the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, Free Vietnam) is unreal. That the Americans fell to their own illusions as to the solidity of their creation when the CIA established the Diem regime on the corpse of France's puppet "State of Vietnam" in the crucial years of 1954-55. But there is not the verve or color of Halberstam’s descriptions of the Americans. Equally, the war itself is not the subject of this book. And while strategic hamlets, napalm, defoliation and free fire zones are mentioned, Halberstam is concerned with the war's origins, and not its nature.

It is a book about the United States of America and why that nation unleashed all the marvelous terrors of modern, industrial civilization on a small, peripheral peasant country. A country so weak and so marginal, it is hard to conceive why one would fight there at all. It is a book about why the Liberals came to doom themselves and their dreams. And here we are treated to all the crimes of American liberalism and all the complicities with those of American conservatism. It begins early. It is Kennedy who campaigns on a non-existent “missile gap” with the Russians (McNamara proposes adding 950 missiles to the U.S. arsenal for domestic political reasons, not strategic necessity.) It is Kennedy who reappoints J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles to head the FBI and CIA. They would go on, respectively, to spy on domestic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK himself, and continue hair-brained secret interventions abroad. It is Kennedy who refuses to overturn the irrational policy of not recognizing the government of the most populous country in the world, an absurdity that would last for three decades. It is Robert F. Kennedy who is the most hawkish in the early years. It is Lyndon Johnson who goes to war in South Vietnam, apparently because he could not face the domestic political consequences of “Losing Vietnam” as Harry S. Truman had once “Lost China”.


It is a dour business to see this descent into the bloody abyss. The causes emerge from the text. And here, disaster has many fathers, many necessary causes. Perhaps the most serious is the Liberal tendency to overcompensate for appearing to not be sufficiently “anti-communist”. There were no experts on Asia left in the American government, no people with “real expertise at the operational level.” We have touching portraits of Foreign Service China experts like John Stewart Service and John Patton Davies who were purged in the McCarthy Era merely for predicting the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek. In the 1960s, Foreign Service officers would be more cautious before stepping out of line. We have the United States exporting fears of the Communist Soviet Union to the Third World, describing all Communist national movements as the “new colonialism of a Soviet communist empire”. As though there were no such thing as Titoism, that Russia was now capable of transcontinental domination, that Mao was not capable of independence. There is the preponderant power of the United States itself, deriving from its size, its technology, its economy. If one has power, one will after all be tempted to use it, and Halberstam is on to something when he identifies “the enemy” as “bigness, technology and the government itself.” There is American nationalism, the mythology of the Second World War, and movies with John Wayne. There is finally, and this is eternal and universal, “the escalatory logic of White Crosses.” As one commits one soldier one commits the whole prestige of the nation. As one soldiers dies in an endeavor, it becomes all the more difficult to abandon it, so much easier to sacrifice more soldiers.

It is then, a rather discouraging affair. Ostensibly, it is one that we should learn from. And here we can identify crude parallels. There was the faddism with “counter-insurgency” (now shortened to “COIN”). There were the usual knee-jerk hawkish journalists like Marguerite Higgins and Joe Alsop, always ready to attack the manhood of those who govern if they are not eager for death. There is the temptation by the governing class to mask the war, to hide its costs, to pretend it is not even occurring, lest the people turn against it once they realize the burden this will be for them in blood and taxes. And here, why should we not be pessimistic? That generation of Liberals killed liberalism in America. It has still not recovered. We might question what this means for our own time, as the new “Best and Brightest” with our own prodigal son prove so underwhelming, so banal, so typical of the American State.


Perhaps it is normal. Doves and Good Men do not tend to fare well. They become militarists or are destroyed. Mahatma Gandhi was murdered, as were Anwar Sadat and Jean Jaurès. Léon Blum was tried by Philippe Pétain for treason. The German Social Democrats voted for war credits in 1914. The American Democrats voted for war in 1964 and in 2002. The British "Left," of all things, joined them in the latter year. Nationalism is at fault, an inordinate sense of one’s importance, one’s perspective, one’s abilities in the world. And, make no mistake, the idea of America is infinitely greater than the United States of America could ever be – indeed – greater than anything that could exist on this Earth. So all our Good Men, our Liberals, our Democrats, our Socialists, our Doves govern and they sin. The power destroys and disfigures them, makes the rotten from the inside out. In their later years they might look in the mirror but they can scarcely recognize themselves. Dan Ellsberg had been in the U.S. government during the 1960s escalation but went on to oppose the war and leak the Pentagon Papers. He later bumped into an old acquaintance and was asked: “Are you the Dan Ellsberg I knew in College?” He replied, “I haven’t been for a long time, but I am again.”

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Good Man's Wars (book review)

George Orwell
Homage to Catalonia


George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is the classic account of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Here Fascists, Revolutionaries, and a tantalizing Utopia all appear. But I was first struck by how the book fit neatly into the usually lighthearted genre of travel writing. Here Orwell, like so many Englishmen, writes of his trip to Spain – as he might be writing of France or Italy – as an escape to stuck up, dour old England. The country is loved, hated, romanticized, as we might expect. The Spaniards are disastrously disorganized – all actions (even vital) are always pushed to mañana – but they are good-hearted. The countryside and towns are splendid, though Orwell only had time to appreciate them after being discharged. He communicates in “Bad Spanish”. He meets Italians, Englishmen and Frenchmen who had also joined the militia (including their wicked accents). One could almost be reading the experiences of an Erasmus exchange student (centered in, of all places, Barcelona, the quintessential student/international Anglo-experience city). One is only brought back to that time by the occasional incongruity, the shocking statement from another world, as for instance when Orwell describes a young Italian militiaman’s face as having “both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors.”

Orwell is here because he is a radical revolutionary and is willing to die for it. Orwell had been a colonial policeman in Burma where he had seen the excesses and humiliations of British imperialism. He had gone to Eton with the offspring of the English ruling class but willingly went into poverty in the slums of London and Paris to see the conditions of the working class. Orwell hated it: the wretched poverty and brutal working conditions of the proletariat combined with that self-satisfied bourgeoisie that guarded its wealth and privileges behind a careful set of norms and prejudices. So Orwell loves Barcelona. He is enthralled with the Revolution. People say “Salud” instead of “Buenas Dias,” they call each other “Comrade” instead of “Don” or “Señor”. They no longer even tip in the restaurants as waiters are now the equals of patrons. He is unconcerned with the fact that all the churches have been wrecked (Orwell assures us, the Catholic Church in Spain “was a racket”). Things are run down, the war means deprivation, but Orwell satisfies himself with symbols: “Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving.” To Orwell there is no doubt: “I recognized it immediately as something worth fighting for. Also I believe that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the worker’s side”.

So Orwell joins the militia and goes to the front. And here one would excuse him if he had become disillusioned. He does not embellish the fighting against Francisco Franco’s hated “Fascists”. Rather, we are constantly torn between war as so demanding on human beings as to reveal their nobler side, and war as at bottom a nasty, meaningless, if not outright boring thing. Orwell spent most of the serving in trenches, sometimes commanding thirty or so men. We meet a motley crew of Spaniards, teenagers and foreigners. They hardly have any weapons, any training or indeed basic equipment (like uniforms). The peasants curse both armies as crops are trampled and go unharvested. There us very little activity for weeks on end as the enemy mostly sticks to its side, the Republicans to theirs. Orwell seems more terrified of the bitter cold of spending a night in a trench in winter (or the occasional, necessary, bathing in a river) than of Fascist soldiers. He is as explicit as he can be about the unglamorous, downright unhygienic side of war. On the irrepressible ability of lice to spread at the front, he says:

I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – everyone of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

Orwell does participate in a little fighting, including a diversionary offensive. It is mostly graceless, however, and brought to an end by his being wounded. Here too it is a meaningless, empty thing. Orwell is shot in the neck, out of nowhere, and crumples to the ground, convinced it was friendly fire. Obviously he survived the event but it was a close run thing, and he thought he had permanently lost his voice for a time.


Contrasting this is a sense – precisely because war is such a wretched thing – that to fight for a good cause is something noble too. It tugs at him. Orwell notes that wartime naturally turns even liberal regimes into despotic ones, he describes all the discomforts in detail, he warns against the dangers of Spanish hospitals where the nurses will steal your valuables… and yet the war is also a romantic thing. There is camaraderie in shared sacrifice. Orwell notes that whereas the Republican government’s factions of “Trotskyists,” Stalinists and Anarchists were at each others’ throats, at the front the vicious politicking of the cities was did not exist among these groups’ various militias. He even allows himself a little rhetorical flourish, once riding a train and seeing what “was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one’s heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.” Even lousy, disheveled and maimed, the spirit of 1914 is not yet lost.

There is also, perhaps especially, the internal political war. Here it is of the constant, petty, and dangerous internecine fighting between the Republican government’s various leftwing factions. I cannot pretend to understand the intricacies of the P.O.U.M., C.N.T., F.A.I. and P.S.U.C. Here Orwell sees the decay of his Revolution as (paradoxically) the (Stalinist) Communists gradually take power, so bourgeois dress, norms and hierarchy return. There is almost a civil war within the civil war, as Communists and anti-Stalinists establish barricades in Barcelona, eyeing each other for days in case the tension should flare up into fighting in the streets.

We get a sense of the vicious sectarianism that is so characteristic of the hard left. Orwell spends a great deal of time correcting the “lies” that were spread in much of the Communist European press that described as “Fascist” those parties opposed to the Communist Party takeover in Catalonia. (We also learn something of his fringe status that he felt the need to rebuke what was a rather marginal movement in England.) This is Orwell’s education in totalitarianism. Many of the themes that would later find their way into 1984 are present. Onetime allies become eternal enemies as Communist thugs hurl the epithet “Trotskyist” at their rivals. Orwell’s own friends vanish one by one, held up incommunicado in Spanish prisons, where it seems inevitable they will die of neglect. The war against the Fascists, the real war, becomes a mere background to the internal struggle for supremacy. His Revolution is dying.


Orwell leaves Spain as his membership of a non-Stalinist militia makes him a public enemy. He returns to an England that must have seemed rather unreal. If one is not in the mines, slums or factories, it is not an unpleasant place. Things are secure, timely, predictable. English travelers to Spain write in the papers that things are going fine because they “do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels.” Always the sense that safe life in wealthy, stable, English-speaking countries makes one rather aloof and unable to fully understand the experiences of others. While in Spain, he had the inability to “shake off” the British notion that the police could not arrest him so long as he had done nothing wrong. In England the milk bottles, the cricket matches, and Royal weddings are there as they seemingly always have. But such calm in contrast with the war and upheaval of Spain does not bring Orwell peace of mind: “sometimes I fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s love letter to a Revolution. We are reminded of Orwell’s radicalism. It is striking how he spends no time at all to addressing the arguments of the Right (by which we mean any capitalist). They are enemies and that is a given. He is solely concerned about the nature and debates of the revolutionary Left. It says something of his priorities even as the radicalism of his legacy is carefully excised from our consciousness. It reminds us to of the banality, the inadequacy of contemporary politics. Who among the Left today would be willing to brave life and limb for their ideals? Our imaginations are shut. We cannot conceive of a better society, of another form of human organization. We dare not even try. And this is perhaps Orwell’s goal above all. To make us understand that there was a moment, however brief, in which he saw a window into another world, that the foundations of this one are not so solid. And if there is another world, that good men must risk themselves if we are to attain it.

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