Wednesday, May 23, 2007
A Dimming of the Brights
The value and relevance of the book is less its Vietnam-specific facts than its enduring lesson, which is that every generation is at risk of its own deceptions, delusions, and Five O’Clock Follies. And they are just as likely to result from the best of intentions—our “best and brightest”—as the worst. Because this is part of what it means to be American, knowing or even experiencing history is no guarantee against disaster. The ultimate validation of Halberstam’s thesis appears ironically in the wisdom of John McCain, arguably one of our best and brightest, who wrote the book’s reflective and tragically prophetic foreword:
It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.
Halberstam saw firsthand the consequences of McCain’s memory hole, of hubris and jingoistic adventurism, of lessons studied but never learned. With his passing, we lost one of our most sharp-eyed observers at a time when vigilance is more important than ever.