War Lord

For a nonfiction writer of my generation, give or take a few years, David Halberstam is as large as it gets. Describing a book as Halberstam-like is practically de rigueur if you want a big advance for your big nonfiction ambitions. (John Heilemann, a next-generation author, drew a million-dollar advance from HarperCollins a few years ago on the promise of a Halberstam-like book about the rise of Silicon Valley – but one problem with a Halberstam-like book is that it takes so long to write that in Heilemann’s case, Silicon Valley collapsed before he finished the story of its rise.)

David Halberstam himself, however – even though he’s spent hundreds of weeks on the New York Times best-seller list – has been out of favor with publishers for quite a while now. This is partly because he hasn’t wanted to write about Silicon Valley (he’s a proud technophobe) or, for that matter, about anything having to do with the growth of business as the national pastime and ethos. The culture ran away from him and he made no effort to catch up (his one concession has been to write about sports – but even that he does in a 1950-ish reverie). For the general publishing and pop-culture industries, this has not seemed so much like a heroic or contrarian stance as a stiff and snobbish one. (At a dinner after Barry Diller formed USA Networks, Halberstam stood up and, in his deep voice – with such an undifferentiated bass range that it’s often hard to understand him – asked Diller what USA Networks planned to do in the area of public affairs.)

There’s a whiff of martyrdom here. He has, he says, “accommodated to a lesser response.” He says he has come to understand that “the time in the limelight, which was always brief, would be briefer.”

“The change,” he says, by which he means the creation of an entrepreneurial class to service the national demand for immediate gratification, “has made people who do what I do less important.”

An irony is that Halberstam’s two big books – The Best and the Brightest, about the managerial arrogance that led us into Vietnam, and The Powers That Be, about the proprietors of the nation’s most influential media companies – in some sense helped create the modern careerist outlook. A hallmark of a Halberstam book is the meticulous detail with which he lays out a well-played career (he himself is Harvard, the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize). How many modern policy wonks have pored over The Best and the Brightest? How many of today’s mediaists began their careers with The Powers That Be as their guidebook? (Halberstam, as though slightly guilty about what he’s wrought, dismisses one such mediaist of our mutual acquaintance, well known for his study of The Powers That Be, as a “classic brown-noser.”)

But Halberstam really has little interest in where such careerism has led the nation. Entrepreneurism, freelancing, disintermediating, peer-to-peer stuff are not things he gets, or wants to get. His world is ranked, structured, delineated. There is a way to do things, is his point – and then there are the shortcuts and the shortcut takers.

For a few years, our kids went to the same Upper East Side girls’ school. Halberstam was a lugubrious presence there, trotted out for benefits and lectures. He was very much in keeping with the message a school such as this likes to send: There is a fast-moving, culturally relativist, fashion-attuned, media-savvy world out there, but this is not it (Halberstam was, eccentrically, also the editor of the Parents’ Association newsletter for several years). There was always something reassuring about Halberstam’s presence: When you heard his basso profundo, you could settle in for a long nap.

But then came the new change – the change back in some sense.

And with his recent book War in a Time of Peace, a ponderous account of the remote wars of the nineties – the Gulf War, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo – Halberstam is back on the best-seller lists and on the talk shows.

Partly, this is just good luck. Anybody who can talk about foreign policy with any authority (and there aren’t too many) is now a good talk-show get. But Halberstam, judging by his willful somnambulism, his dedicated long-windedness, his determined unmediatedness (he never smiles), may be a broader barometer. In him, we may be reconnecting with our glummer, more stoic, and, it is certainly possible, better selves.

Indeed, while his book is about the past decade, in some sense it gives the feeling that the past two decades have not occurred – that we are back in a time when the world was a menacing, tragic, and compelling place (instead of an annoying and uninteresting one). In War in a Time of Peace, it’s obviously peace that’s the anomaly. In a timely fashion, he’s rehabilitated war as something of a condition of original sin – we fight war because we are not good enough to avoid war.

Certainly Halberstam’s version of war is much different from, say, Tom Brokaw’s (who, Halberstam points out, has never had a posting as a foreign correspondent; likewise, he notes, Dan Rather’s tour in Vietnam was “not wildly successful”) or Stephen Ambrose’s best-selling versions, or Steven Spielberg’s big-screen (and little-screen) takes. Those renditions sell a certain nostalgic and noble feeling, whereas Halberstam is the remote father (authority comes naturally to him) whose hallmark is to eschew sentiment and gloss (his verbiage alone kills the fun of war). His version of war isn’t, he says, “therapeutic.”

For Halberstam, affairs of state require serious men. And that seriousness – which excludes most emotion, pretty much all humor, certainly anything to do with sex or sexiness, all dreams of riches, and any market considerations, and relegates personal ambition to the narrowest ladder – is a special status. It’s the opposite of chaos theory. Halberstam believes in blame. There are right decisions and there are wrong decisions. Serious men have at least a chance at making the right decisions (although, in the Halberstam worldview, serious men will also, mostly likely, fail).

Even his courtliness (“May I call you Michael?” he asks after we have talked for an hour or so in a restaurant around the corner from his West Side apartment) is tempered by deep and dour seriousness. You really don’t have to interview him – he’s so convinced of the questions that need to be asked that he just begins to answer them and is only vaguely tolerant when I try to chime in.

While they are at opposite political extremes, Halberstam reminds me of Dick Cheney. It’s their lack of humor, irony, plasticity, and evident salesmanship. It’s a certain pleasure they take in grimness. I wonder if, together, they don’t represent a new sort of man (no matter that they are hardly new). No frills. No fun. And no ambivalence. In the comparison between Halberstam and the vice-president, you can start to make the argument that sensibility is probably much more important than ideology.

Halberstam certainly believes, along with the Bush people, that we have entered into a new Cold War. We are, he is positive, talking about nothing less than the most difficult world conflict of our lives (and at 67, he’s known a lot of conflicts). We’ve embarked upon what he calls, reaching back to JFK’s words, “the long twilight struggle.”

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

War Lord