The Upside of Anger
A David Halberstam appreciation
By William Prochnau
William Prochnau, a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.
David Halberstam, the distinguished author known, among other things, for his groundbreaking reporting on the Vietnam War, died in April in a car crash south of San Francisco. He was 73.
David Halberstam filled a room. An auditorium. A dining room. He stood 6'3" with broad shoulders and a craggy face. But it would have been the same if he had slumped at 5'6" with a double-chin. He was Halberstam. All bigness. Ideas. Nerve. Stride. Voice. Certainty about his place in the world and the contributions he could make to it. Ego. Anger. Heart. Generosity.
Did I hero-worship him? Sure. He had plenty of warts. Big ones, of course. I had plenty of time to find most of them, and he ran from none. He glossed over none. He hated gloss.
In writing my book about the early war correspondents in Vietnam, "Once Upon a Distant War," I talked to David over and over again for more than 10 years. Instead of me talking now, I will let this strong-willed reporter of all reporters talk from my notes, some of which made it into the book, some of which didn't.
David had many passions. I'll deal with just a few of them here:
• The lying (he would never mute that word) that he felt was a reporter's duty to reveal to the public because his government had become "a lying machine" that deluded itself and the country into more than a decade of war.
• His unending scorn for the Washington press corps that he felt was corrupted by the dinner-party social trade for spoon-fed news.
• The inherent anger, which he tried to control but which he admitted made him a better reporter.
Halberstam was in Vietnam at a time most of us don't remember--during the little war of 1962-1963. It was not the Vietnam Hollywood has dramatized. Saigon was still almost French. Two years would pass before the U.S. committed divisions of combat troops that would eventually become more than 500,000 strong. The U.S. fought there under the silly pretense that all we had in Vietnam was military advisers who didn't pull triggers, perhaps one of the most unlikely lies ever told by a government at war.
Halberstam was not the one on whom to foist that kind of nonsense. "Saigon was a lying machine," he told me a dozen times. "A blood spot in the jungle became a body in a body count sent back to the Pentagon. We were there. In the paddies. We saw the body counts, many of them very honest by the lieutenants. Then we went back to Saigon to the briefings and they were quadrupled and maybe more by the time they got to the Pentagon. The lies became so pervasive, little ones, big ones. We were winning. When I went to Vietnam, there were 30,000 Viet Cong insurgents. We killed 30,000 while I was there. When I left, there were 30,000 Viet Cong insurgents. Winning.."
"It was one piece of bullshit after another. Then they went after us. We were pinkos and we 'weren't on the team.' They went after our bravery and our values. We were too young and astigmatic. I was 28. How can that be too young in a war? I was at my peak, my best, my strongest, my mind the clearest."
Halberstam's showdowns with the brass were legendary.
A briefing with a general in Saigon: "General Stilwell, don't tell us that. We are not your corporals or your privates. We are the New York Times, the Associated Press, the United Press."
At Tansonnhut Airport, shaking his fist at a Marine general who had been bad-mouthing him in Washington: "Let me tell you, you son of a bitch.."
On Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, "I wouldn't believe anything McNamara said. He's pathological."
Yet David was anything but antimilitary. When the brass shut them out, he and other reporters--like Neil Sheehan and Malcolm Browne and Peter Arnett--found it one of the best breaks they could have gotten. They went into the field and found younger officers who were as fed up as they were. David would tell wonderful stories about soldiers, one of his favorites being about Col. "Coal Bin Willie" Wilson, who got his nickname for training troops by ordering recruits to fill a coal bin and then ordering them to take all the coal back out. Then he ordered them to put it back in.
"Coal Bin Willie was so Army that if someone told him that if the Army had wanted him to have a wife, they would have issued him one, he wouldn't have got married. But the mendacity got to him, and he began talking to me."
Halberstam's relationships with both Washington officialdom and the Washington press corps were ballistic.
President John F. Kennedy once tried to have him removed from Vietnam by asking then-New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger to transfer him. Sulzberger declined. "The Kennedy thing never bothered me," Halberstam said. "I heard the story later and I thought, 'Well, fuck you.' What the Kennedys thought of our work didn't mean a shit. We didn't want to go to Hickory Hill [Robert F. Kennedy's Virginia home]. We had no desire to socialize with the Kennedys."
But for all his gruff and bluff, Halberstam--like most journalists--could be thin-skinned. "We were the first [reporters] that Kennedy didn't feed, the first to challenge him. And the Kennedy people made it very personal." It also bothered him that no matter how many stories he wrote from the scene, they would be overwhelmed by optimistic reporting coming out of Washington. His distaste for the Washington press corps lasted through Iraq and to his dying day. "The social climbing was outrageous. It still is."
"I remember I came back [in late 1963] and was talking with one Washing-ton reporter and he said, 'Well, I thought you'd be very glad to know that your name came up at dinner and I defended you.' I didn't say anything. But I thought, 'Well, Christ, I don't need you to defend me. Just do your work.' They could have found stories. There were doubts around town. But they were not written and there were no excuses for it."
But he was without doubt about what he did. "I have no illusion that the press is popular. The idea that telling the truth will make you popular is inconceivable to me. That isn't the way life works."
Halberstam could be defensive about his anger. He didn't like talking about it. Nor did he want to psychoanalyze himself. "So I was the only Jewish kid in a small town in the 1950s. So I fought in the schoolyard. My brother and I learned how to defend ourselves. You worked out your own integrity. But the anger mostly came out of the bullshit. It was the lies. It should make anyone angry."
"But the thing about my anger... I don't deny I have it and I don't deny that it manifests itself in anti-authority that suits me very well in this profession, which has allowed me, as it has many other talented reporters like me, Sy Hersh, others, to use their psychological given in a positive way.
"That being the case, you don't throw it around aimlessly and I think I've been very lucky in a sense that it has been given a positive use in my career choice..whereas if I had gone into some other professions, I would have been appalling."
I used to kid Halberstam about his books, about how he built these huge characters so that they would fall all the harder. "You make them Prince Valiants, David." He looked at me and smiled because he knew I thought he had helped in the making of himself as a Prince Valiant, too.
He told me a story he subsequently told others. "You and I, Bill, we're playwrights. We set the stage. We build these large, complex characters. And we let them tell the story."
Then we went through one more anecdote about the anger.
"This is all you, Halberstam," I said.
"Yeah," he replied. "But if I didn't have the anger, you wouldn't have as good a book."
As usual, he was right.
William Prochnau (WProchnau@aol.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and author. He has written about the Los Angeles Times, the sale of Times Mirror and the now-defunct Thomson Newspapers for AJR. A version of this article first appeared on the Web site of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. ###