David Halberstam, patriotism and courage

Halberstam examined the rise of American pseudo-warriors and uber-patriots who exploit -- but never exude -- concepts of courage, patriotism and strength.

Published April 24, 2007 12:11PM (EDT)

Halberstam's September 2004, essay in Vanity Fair (not available online) powerfully examined how the two concepts of "patriotism" and "courage" have been converted from meaningful values into crass political weapons by a political faction led by individuals who possess very little of either:

Who is a patriot today-someone who immediately puts a small American flag in his lapel, but sacrifices nothing in his own lifestyle, or someone without a pin, but who favors a dollar-a-gallon gas tax, because in the long run that will make us less dependent on a volatile, essentially hostile part of the world? Maybe they're both patriots, for who will ever know?

The truth is that the nature of patriotism changed dramatically in the years after World War II. Because we had the atomic weapon, America seemed invulnerable to foreign occupation. Its wars were now less about survival than about something abstract like collective security (Korea), or something which was quite possibly politically dubious (Vietnam). The path for the ascending governing class was now paved with easily attainable deferments.

The new post-A-bomb definition of patriotism was suddenly very different. The children of those who had volunteered immediately for World War II found no compelling reason to sign on for these new wars. Others could go in their place. This was true across the board politically, left and right. . . .

I cannot imagine this happening at another time: an assault on Kerry and his war record being orchestrated by men and women who did not go, who did not pay that terrible price physically and psychically. But this is clearly a different and more careless America. Reality is ever more fragile these days, placed as it is in the hands of the ever more skillful reality managers of both political parties.

Increasingly well financed, they excel at creating a reality that's better and more comforting than the old kind. How else could a president who did not fly in combat during a war when he had the chance choose to imitate a fighter pilot by landing on a carrier in full flight regalia to pose under a triumphant banner reading, mission accomplished? . . .

I should point out that the patriotic fault line is on occasion nonpartisan, although always ideological: the hard-liners and the neocons, who always seem to know who is a patriot and who is not, were convinced that Ronald Reagan, who did not serve in World War II, except to make propaganda movies in Hollywood, was a war hero, whereas the more moderate George H. W. Bush, who had signed up as a naval pilot on the day of his 18th birthday, was, as a Newsweek cover story suggested, always associated with the Wimp Factor. (Most of the Newsweek editors, as I pointed out in one of my books, had never heard a shot fired in anger.)

To my mind the original point man for the new superhawks, whose words are greater than their deeds, was Newt Gingrich: he became the leader of a new generation of Republican conservatives, who praised the cause of Vietnam and who were steadfast in attacking those who felt it was a terrible miscalculation. But Newt, like many of the other new superhawks, never went himself. (He used to brag that his stepfather had fought in Korea and Vietnam.)

To the new superhawks an America engaged in a worthy war of self-defense and a neo-imperial America engaged in a war that is a significant miscalculation of policy are the same thing. For them there is no right of dissent, no right to change your mind and protest a war, to say that your early support was based on inadequate evidence and the government's manipulation of the sacred trust between it and its citizens.

The superhawks' prototype is no longer Gingrich, now retired to the vastly more profitable world of lecturing and writing bad novels. Their new poster boy is the vice president himself, a man of great certitude, not just about Vietnam but about Iraq as well-his confidence and certitude hardly born of a life experience.

Richard Cheney received five-yes, five-deferments, a record that would make most men modest about speaking out on Vietnam and related subjects. He had not gone to Vietnam himself, he once famously told The Washington Post, because "I had other priorities." His confidence in the wisdom of the Vietnam War, however, remains unshakable. It was, he has said, a noble cause. . . .

I know that Dick Cheney is a shrewd and able man and that almost no one, not even Don Rumsfeld, is more skillful at operating in a bureaucracy, but I am inclined to think there is a terrible gap in his education, and I wish dearly that he had gotten one less deferment, had gone to Vietnam, had earned the C.I.B., and had used his high intelligence to learn about Vietnam as he seems to have learned about working in a bureaucracy. I think we'd all be better off for it.

In a November 2005 Vanity Fair essay, he examined the related theme -- how concepts of American "strength" and "power" have become wildly distorted beyond all recognition:

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not mean, ipso facto, we were a good society-because being better than a crude and brutal dictatorship is not good enough. But since we had won, we strutted.

We strut, all of us, too much. Our weaponry is so exceptional that our political leaders need no allies-they dictate our plans, and if the allies do not agree with us, they are called cowardly. Our businessmen are brittle, ever more sure of themselves and their deals and their right to prosper on an ever grander scale, whether or not they are competent at their jobs, even as they produce less and less in terms of real goods. Our celebrities, so loudly heralded in this entertainment age for what are often marginal talents, are more arrogant and more self-indulgent than ever. Our athletes, when they go overseas for international competition, are all too often an embarrassment in their personal behavior.

When did all this happen? What are the roots? As we achieved greater affluence in the 50 years after World War II, did we steadily become more arrogant than our parents and grandparents, more convinced that we were special and apart from other nations? Where is the country I thought I knew? Where did our modesty go?

One of my favorite speeches is General Dwight Eisenhower's Guildhall address, which he delivered in June 1945 in London, after being made an honorary citizen of that city. Beautifully written and infinitely modest, it is a magnificent speech, made all the more memorable by the moment it represented-the transfer of leadership from one Western democracy, in decline, to another, younger and richer, just beginning to ascend. It contains the words of a man who, though he commanded a vast army, knew that the sacrifices had been made not by himself or the politicians but by the young men and women who had fought and were not coming back.

Eisenhower's voice that day was nothing less than America at its best-thoughtful, tempered, respectful of others, including those whose histories and sacrifices were greater than our own. His was the voice of a generous and confident man who spoke for a generous and confident nation. I read it often and still take comfort from it. It is a long way from the current cockiness of a man so full of braggadocio that he can say of a conflict with a new kind of extremely dangerous adversary, Bring it on. Are we so strident now because we are less sure of who we are and what the real sources of our strength are?

By Glenn Greenwald

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