The Book Club

Halberstam: A Windbag With Periodic Clarity

Dear Sarah,

As usual, all your points are bull’s-eyes. I was so busy being a foreign policy geek that I forgot to make stylistic comments, but I noticed the same problems throughout the book. For an important writer, Halberstam is–how to put it delicately?–a windbag. Of course, most of the book is fine, but every now and then he goes into a stream of consciousness monologue that combines the brevity of Henry James with the vivacity of a quarterly report of the Brookings Institution. And there are more than a few malapropisms. It’s almost as if he read this into a tape recorder, but forgot to go back and turn it into good writing. When his conversational style works, it works nicely, but there are moments you just have to circle a passage and wonder what he was thinking.

I really enjoyed your examples of clunkers. Then I had to add a few of my own.

10–George Bush has little “flare” for the dramatic (bell-bottoms reference?).

15–“The bright and angry young Republican conservatives in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, had broken with him on that issue, and he had got the tax increase through Congress largely with support from the Democrats. But it would become a not-insignificant wound.”

16–“If not everyone loves a sword, then everyone on the winning side loves a swift sword.”

160–“The first generation of high-ranking, high-visibility television journalists had made their bones as foreign correspondents.” (Huh?)

246–“He [Les Aspin] was replaced in late 1993, after the catastrophic events in Somalia, and a year and a half later, in May 1995, much mourned by a wide variety of people who had enjoyed his friendship, his intellect, and his service to his country, he died of a stroke.”

I can’t even write out that last one without my computer redlining it. And how many people really “enjoyed” Les Aspin’s service to his country?

But now I’m starting to feel bad. I mean badly. I’ve certainly written a few lousy sentences in my life, which began long ago, and has been filled with great friendships, wide varieties of people, occasional service to my country, not-insignificant wounds, and catastrophic events in Somalia.

I wonder if now it’s time to tip the pendulum of criticism back toward where we started. I mean, this book is really quite decent in many ways. Better than quite decent–it tackles enormously complicated foreign policy issues across two administrations and makes them seem comprehensible, even compelling at times. The portraits of Pentagon players are consistently great, and I learned a lot from them. Halberstam is very good at penetrating the culture of large bureaucracies, and I think he also has it right when he explains the tensions between the different floors of the State Department; between White House/NSC and Pentagon, between old guard military leaders and young Turks like Wes Clark, or between the service branches. I’m grateful to have read a good portrait of a guy like John Shalikashvili, who might never have had a book mention him otherwise and who deserves credit for making some things go right in the mid-’90s.

In your first posting, Sarah, you made an important point when you said that reading Halberstam is a lot better than reading the dry-as-dust policy statements routinely issued by foreign policy think tanks and government agencies. Even at his most garrulous, Halberstam is vastly better than that. There is so much unreadable verbiage relating to our military and foreign policy–it’s part of a code language designed to keep this information the province of pasty middle-aged men. So I’m all in favor of journalists breaking it down and explaining it to a wide audience.

The more I think about it, the more I like something that at first disconcerted me. It’s impressive that he wrote the story of problems connecting George Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations rather than dividing them. His approach shows not only how big a small regional crisis can be but argues for the unending continuity of foreign policy, regardless of political and personal distinctions. Though he mentions George W. Bush in the final few pages, I wish he had gone on more because it would have shown how the wheel has turned back to the people the book began with (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the brilliant strategists who ignored Bosnia then and want to ignore it again today). With more nerve, he might have offered an important critique of Condoleezza Rice, who has shown little backbone where it matters (the Balkans) and too much where it does not (outer space).

To end on a satisfying middling note, I think this book has some important insights about how our flawed democratic system organizes its foreign policy, but it needed the machete-wielding guerrilla-editor you called for last time. Let’s face it, as writers get older and more established, they get complacent. I pray that will never happen to me. Fortunately, the person I hired to ghost-write this review for me is completely trustworthy.