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War Lord

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This is not just a strategic view but an I-told-you-so one. It is not that much of a reach to see, in the Halberstam view, the present state of the world, and our vulnerability to it, as the culmination of a meretricious, distracted, unserious decade.

In War in a Time of Peace, he draws a picture of a decade-long, free-falling set of wars that are all terror-based. They are all about leverage rather than strength. They are all about the calamitous strivings and self-aggrandizement of individual men rather than about the interests, or even the bullying of, states. It's all the madness of ambition. Saddam. Milosevic. Somalia's General Aidid. The Hutu Interahamwe. All of whom seem to lead naturally to bin Laden. Bin Laden is the ultimate freelancer and entrepreneur.

They are all shortcut takers. Terror is the shortcut.

But it isn't, when you read this book, us against them, necessarily.Rather, our shortcuts aid their shortcuts.

Our hubris of the boom years (that we could so completely imagine the world as we wanted to imagine it, with ourselves as the massive center) is symbiotic with their hubris.

Indeed, our model is the one they follow. Take some two-bit notoriety and, through the media and acts of audacity, turn it into major notoriety.

If the less-developed world has produced a generation of power freelancers (and power freaks) who have broken ranks with the traditional political and cultural proprietors, in some sense they've been mirrored, in the Halberstam view, or complemented, by the freelancers here. The managers, the entrepreneurs, the bankers, the mediaists, the political operatives, the boomers, with their short-term, big-money, seize-the-day attitudes. Bill Clinton makes David Halberstam shudder.

Halberstam believes in the worthiness and primacy of civic institutions (the nineties idea that politics may have been replaced by the market, and politicians by entrepreneurs, is sacrilegious for him). He believes in owners over managers (The Best and the Brightest is the ultimate anti-manager book; The Powers That Be is a paean to the media world before the managers took it over) and opportunistic entrepreneurs. He believes in sacrifice and obligation over ambition.

Pop culture dismays him. Celebrities don't interest him (although he does seem to go to many fancy dinner parties). Touchy-feely stuff makes him shake his head. ("War is so confusing for Oprah -- she's unsure whether to stress how bad killing is or how important it is to defend the country.")

He certainly does not believe in the new financial-media-technology power structure -- the American Establishment as it is, for instance, annually described by Vanity Fair. ("Do these people really influence society?" he asks, and answers, "No, not at all. This is just a scorecard of who made the most money.") He has a different idea of power, who should have it, how they should use it, and who might challenge them on its use. The quick and the glib are not at the center of his power grid.

He does not seem to believe that he has to update himself, either. His main circle of reference includes Homer Bigart (the great New York Times foreign correspondent he relieved in Vietnam in 1962), Willie Morris, Harrison Salisbury, Neil Sheehan, James Wooten, Garrick Utley ("an elegant man"), Tom Wicker, Russell Baker.

He believes in his own generation, a generation defined, he says, by two events: the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War.

He believes, it seems, in war (he derides Newsweek as "a magazine where most of the editors had never heard a shot fired in anger"). The ability of war to clarify what is important -- to focus the concerns and the will of serious men; to put the frivolous and the ephemeral and the solipsistic and the self-aggrandizing behind us.

When I suggest that the present terrorism threat might be not so much a call to arms as an intricate management challenge, he is, I think, momentarily offended. "We will require," he says, "the emotional and intellectual participation of ordinary people."

We need, he clearly feels, not just national vigilance but moral attention.

A disaster freezes all the good cheer and optimism and jokes and excesses that came just before it. Such ebullience can even seem responsible for the bad thing that has happened. Guilt takes over. We feel we have to quickly grow up and become our fathers. David Halberstam is willing to show us how.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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