The Insider

An Outlaw Journalist Joins the Fold


Despite the 20th century’s getting a valedictory as the bloodiest 100 years in the recorded history of mankind, some modern philosophies still cling to a belief in Progress or Creative Evolution–not merely in medicine and plumbing and video games but in improved social conduct. I’m not sure where David Halberstam comes down on that issue, except that he would definitely agree with Will Rogers’ observation: “You can’t say civilization don’t advance, for in every war they kill you a new way.”

Halberstam is enchanted by civilization’s advances in aerial weaponry, and I’ll return to that enchantment in a little while. But first, what does he have to say about some of the recent military gambles of our political and Pentagon leaders? (Unfortunately, his book went to press before our Afghanistan forays began, but we can easily guess that his reactions would be upbeat.)

When the major nations of the world can’t think up a reason to interfere militarily with each other, they get rid of their pent-up energy by interfering with tribal groups. From the late 18th century until today (with their missionary efforts interrupted only by two world wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars), U.S. military forces were used in a dozen interventions to bring “freedom” and “general enlightenment” to presumed lesser breeds, from the Caribbean to the Philippines. Major General Smedley Butler of the Marine Corps summarized one glorious period in a letter to the editor of Common Sense in 1933: “I helped make Mexico, and especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests, I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests. I helped make Honduras ‘right’ for American fruit companies.”

Maybe we’re not quite that obvious these days, but we’re still playing that game. In War In a Time of Peace, Halberstam reviews our recent military missionary work (mostly a failure) in such tribal hangouts as Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and in portions of the former Yugoslavia. Each invasion (except for Iraq’s where everyone knew the real reason–oil) has been justified as being done for “humanitarian” and “nation-building” reasons–the two excuses we switched to for invading super-tribal Afghanistan, when we saw that our original honest reason, revenge, was bad p.r. in some countries.

Halberstam concentrates on the Balkans and on our (as he sees it) shamefully late effort to stop the slaughter in that part of the world. Indeed, our response was late, and it was shamefully so, if you believe that the Pentagon should be used to stop the same old tribes from venting hatreds as they have been venting them for many generations. Halberstam certainly thinks so. And he was somewhat put out when he found in his research that many of the higher-ups in both the Clinton and Bush administrations had not been keen on intervening there.

But why should they have been in a rush? If we accept the typical description found in these pages, the remnants of Yugoslavia were a bloody quagmire that only bubble-headed reformers would step into.

“During the worst of the Cold War,” writes Halberstam, “when Yugoslavia had been ruled by the Communists under the semi-iron hand of Tito, the quip had been that it had six republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two alphabets, and one political party.” When Tito wasn’t taking time out for his favorite pastime–raping young Serbian girls–he was ruthlessly suppressing every detectable sign of nationalism among the restless ethnic groups. And he succeeded.

But when he died, at 88 in May 1980, the old Yugoslavia, which had never been a true nation, fell apart. The Serbs and Croats had been killing each other for 600 years, and the only group they hated more was the Bosnian Muslims. Soon they all were again at each other’s throats.

Larry Eagleburger, who had held various diplomatic jobs in Yugoslavia for eight years and was a key man in the State Department under Bush, often said that “nothing could be done until the various parties to this historical hatred had killed each other off in sufficient numbers.”

Secretary of State Jim Baker had gone to Yugoslavia to try to talk sense to Stalin-like Slobodan Milosovic, but Milosovic paid no attention. So, says Halberstam, Baker left “angry and frustrated, feeling… that these Balkan leaders had no earthly sense of what was good for them. Why waste rational words on irrational people? What happened there, he seemed to think, was what they deserved, and we should wash our hands of the whole thing.”

As for President Bush, he didn’t seem to understand, or want to understand, what was going on in that part of the world. When National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft briefed the president about the complexity of the Balkans, “There was a ritual. Bush would be reading the foreign intelligence reports on Yugoslavia, look up, and ask Scowcroft, ‘Now, tell me again what this is all about.'” And Scowcroft, for the umpteenth time, would go through all the details of why each side hated the other and who had committed the latest outrage on which group. “The more Scowcroft talked, the more the shadow of perplexity seemed to come over Bush’s face.”

For once, I can sympathize with him.

The things happening in that part of the world should have come as no surprise to anyone in our government. There had been much U.S. diplomatic and intelligence (CIA) activity in Yugoslavia during the Cold War. In fact, in the fall of 1990, halfway through Bush’s term, the CIA came out with a remarkably accurate, and pessimistic, prediction of what was about to happen.

In 1991 and 1992, Milosovic’s Serbian army began to inflict, particularly on the Muslims of Bosnia, what Halberstam calls “the worst ethnic crimes in Europe since the rise of Hitler.” Aside from Milosovic, we meet other mentally deranged leaders like the Serbian General Ratko Mladic, who systematically executed 7,000 Muslim men, and the neo-Nazi Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, a bona fide war criminal, who, after a few battle victories, dreamed of conquests as far away as Vienna. (Even Milosovic considered him “clinically insane.”) An estimated 200,000 Serbian residents of Croatia fled Tudjman’s wrath.

Readers are taken to Auschwitz-like events–truckloads of Muslim men supposedly shipped to internment camps, but never seen again; the execution of all patients and the medical staff in a hospital; internment camps that could have been in the Germany of 1943: “The corpses pile up. There was no food, no water, no fresh air. There was no toilet, just holes in the floor, piled high with excrement.” Trains brought new prisoners, packed like cattle to standing room only, their hands visible through the tiny ventilation holes.

There were several reasons our civilian and military leaders were slow to respond to these horrors. But more than anything else, they were haunted and intimidated by the memory of all those body bags from Vietnam–and their political spinoff of enough angry editorials and anti-war riots that the Pentagon’s reputation was shredded and President Johnson decided to flee the presidency.

After Vietnam, the Pentagon had kept asking for bigger budgets, but it obviously preferred not to spend them on ground wars. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, none of our military leaders wanted to get involved. President Bush, says Halberstam, pushed the brass into that one all by himself. And when the Balkans erupted, once again the ghosts of Vietnam paralyzed just about everyone in power, including Bush and General Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But perhaps Powell was also pessimistic about going into Bosnia because he had guessed seriously wrong in two previous conflicts. He was central to the heartbreaking decision to end the push of our troops into Iraq (“It was stated to me clearly by General Powell… that the time had come to stop the fighting,” Bush later said), just as they were about to corner and crush Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Powell was also the heavyweight in the decision to send troops to Somalia for “humanitarian” reasons–which turned into one of our greatest recent military embarrassments. With that record behind him, Powell was very much a wet blanket when asked what it would take to intervene successfully in Bosnia. Two hundred thousand troops, he said.

Once again he was 100 percent wrong. As everyone knows, the United States did not field a single soldier to rescue Kosovo from Milosovic’s rather impressive effort at ethnic cleansing. Our improved aerial weaponry, which had been so important in the war with Iraq, was totally responsible for success in Kosovo.

Which brings us back to Halberstam’s justified enchantment with the advances in aerial weaponry.

If the United States insists on getting into wars, it of course needs an air force, and the people who fly the planes will be happy if the risks they take to drop bombs and missiles really pay off. As Halberstam points out, they damned sure didn’t pay off in World War II. Twice as many air force officers died in battle than in all the rest of the Army, despite the ground force’s much larger size. Before they could go home, crews had to fly 25 missions (some had to fly 35 missions), and half the crews were shot down before they flew 15 missions. What’s more, most of their missions were wasted.

An average bomb dropped from a B-17, says Halberstam, “missed its target by some 2,300 feet. Therefore, if you wanted a 90-percent probability of having hit a particular target, you had to drop some nine thousand bombs. That required a bombing run of one thousand bombers and placed ten thousand men at risk. By contrast, with today’s new weaponry (laser-guided missiles, video-guided bombs, etc.) one plane flown by one man with one bomb could have the same level of probability. The circle of error–that is, the circle into which you could realistically expect to put 50 percent of your bombs–was comparatively large, some twenty miles for the night bombing in the beginning… By the Gulf War, the circle of error was closer to six feet or even smaller.”

It had taken three years for Allied bombers to shut down German military production. If the Air Force had then been equipped with only 48 Stealth fighters carrying the high-tech bombs available in the Gulf War, says Halberstam, they could have shut down Germany’s production in approximately six weeks.

That’s probably quite an exaggeration. After all, the air war on Iraq, which has a ragtag military compared to Nazi Germany’s, took six weeks. But the use of high-aerial weaponry in Kosovo and now in Afghanistan has indeed been impressive because it showed successful wars could be fought without using many, if any, troops on the ground.

That’s nice. But it has a down side. When our troops are getting killed and the body bags are being shipped home, it puts a real damper on the militaristic impulses of Americans and the imperialistic impulses of their leaders.

But with the steady improvement of “smart bombs,” those impulses will be hard to control. If we don’t need Cold War-size A-bombs and we don’t have to risk the casualties of ground war, hey! We could proclaim a new Pax Americana–to be enforced from the skies whenever some upstart nation gets fresh with us.

“Already,” as Chicago Tribune writer Ron Grossman warned recently, “that thought seems to be creeping into the Bush administration’s thinking. The president came into office seemingly committed to reducing the U.S. role as an international policeman. Now, some of his advisers, flush with success in Afghanistan, are talking about which other supporters of terrorism ought to be next on our target list.”

In other words, we may be getting dangerously cocky.

But Halberstam seemingly has no time to consider such possibilities. He is too busy filling these pages with biographies of generals and security advisers and cabinet members and ambassadors whose very names–John Shalikashvili (What! You don’t remember that general?), Richard Holbrooke, Tony Lake, Strobe Talbott, Madeleine Albright, Brent Scowcroft, Bill Cohen, etc., etc.–even these few years later, seem already justifiably covered with dust. Yes, yes, such spear-carriers were important, in the standard way that the bureaucracy runs the government, and the picture of the era would have not been complete without reminding us of their work. But did Halberstam have to drag out his descriptions of their usually rather dull hang-ups, goof-ups, ambitions, jealousies, and strengths in such painful detail? And did we really deserve to be served some of the same old, plodding descriptions of Bush and Clinton politics?

I mean this book is 500 pages long, and some of it is good history, but the history would have been just as good, and far more readable, if it had been half as long. I fear that Halberstam, like many establishment writers of considerable success, has come to think readers should accept everything he puts on the page with grateful awe, however tedious that may be.

The fact is that Halberstam shows in this book, his 17th, that he is slipping. He has a bad habit of repeating himself. It happens over and over again–not always identical language but identical ideas, very close together. He writes that Tony Lake was “impressed by his [Clinton’s] remarkable intelligence.” In the next paragraph he writes that “What struck Lake first about the governor [Clinton] was his intellect.” Next page he writes, “Clinton, Lake decided early on, had an extraordinary intellect.” Within two pages, he says three times that events in Russia-in-transition overshadowed what was going on in Yugoslavia. Within two pages we are told that Colin Powell is the “most admirable personification of the American dream,” a man who “embodied the best of the country’s dreams and possibilities,” and the man “who grew up to live the American dream.”

When he begins to fawn over one of his heroes, Halberstam is particularly repetitive, and nowhere is this shown more clearly than in his profile of Texas’ own Lloyd Bentsen. While Bush was in the White House, Bentsen was a very big dog in the Senate Finance Committee, and then he became Clinton’s first Treasury secretary. Texas liberals who remember Bentsen’s unsavory record as congressman and senator will not recognize him in this profile–which is so sugary that diabetics may find it dangerous to read.

It goes on for pages, full of such stuff as:

Bentsen’s hold over Clinton was almost magical. Clinton was in awe of his treasury secretary, deferential at all times…. Bentsen, wealthy, admired, an immensely successful man who could make other powerful men seem to cower, was the father that Clinton would have chosen…. Bentsen was accomplished in all ways and in many fields…. [he had] all the graces….

Bentsen’s unique position among the Clinton principals… was the result of what feminists would call a guy thing, what happens when men are among men and they watch to see who emerges as the leader, the toughest, smartest, in the pack…. He wore his alpha status, his elevated place in the pecking order of powerful males and would-be powerful males, lightly, with a natural ease. His innate authority in a room of other politicians was the product of the way he had lived his life and nothing less than the sum of his career. His life and career were complete…. The admiration of his peers as a man rather than as a mere politician came easily to Bentsen as it had never come to men like Nixon or Clinton, who had to hold positions of power to gain respect.

Bentsen had a natural grace and an ease with his peers. In c
ntrast, Clinton’s
elationships with peers were always somewhat limited, primarily to those who were like him, political junkies, and courted his friendship because they like being around power. Bentsen’s magnetic pull worked in a room whether he had a title or not….

Bentsen’s influence over Clinton was immense…. Of all these powerful people, Bentsen seemed to stand apart, the man whom, in critical meetings, Clinton always wanted to win over. During those endless discussions about the budget deficit, Bentsen would say little. He was irritated by the length and lack of discipline of these meetings. But toward the end Clinton would turn to him and ask, ‘Lloyd, what do you think?’ Bentsen would answer with a sentence or two–and that was what they would do.

Oddly our grrrreat historian is remarkably brief when it comes to describing Bentsen’s background. Halberstam tells us simply that Bentsen was a protégé of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and for a while the close friend of John Connally (whom he quickly abandoned when Connally ran into financial problems). Halberstam doesn’t mention that in his political rise, he also was the protégé of even greater rogues, such as Alan Shivers, and financed not only by his family’s fortune but also by a long list of the usual suspects in Texas politics of that era, such as George Brown of Brown & Root and Dallas oilman John Murchison.

Halberstam’s description of Bentsen’s 1970 race to unseat Ralph Yarborough is limited to five words–”a bitter and ugly race.” It was, in fact, one of the dirtiest races ever run in a state renowned for dirty races, and though Halberstam neglects to tell us, it was Bentsen who shoveled all the dirt, not Yarborough. Supported by the group–oil, insurance, banks, S&Ls–that held the bulk of the money in Texas, Bentsen rolled to victory by denouncing Yarborough as a nonperson, an “ultra-radical” who did such vile things as support antiwar (Vietnam) protestors and back the Supreme Court on school prayer.

If Halberstam had dared to go into his hero’s political background, he would have had to point out that this was not the first time the Bentsen family had played dirty. When Yarborough challenged Shivers in the gubernatorial race of 1950, the immensely rich elder Bentsen made sure Shivers had plenty of money by selling him 13,000 acres in the Rio Grande Valley for $25,000 and buying it back from him six months later for $450,000. Some of that windfall was used for such Texas-style highjinks as buying an endorsement for Yarborough from “Friends” in the Communist New York Daily Worker.

As for Bentsen’s role as the Democrat’s vice-presidential candidate in 1988, Halberstam passes over it with a mere seven lines of admiration. To find more accurate appraisals of Bentsen’s contribution to that campaign, one must turn to such reporters as Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, who write that “during campaign ’88, two words explained why the Democratic presidential ticket couldn’t use the S&L issue against the Republicans–Lloyd Bentsen. The vice-presidential candidate warned Michael Dukakis to avoid the issue because of Bentsen’s own connections to it…. Businessman/politician Bentsen himself sold an S&L to people with ties to organized crime, who proceeded to loot the till.”

And what about Bentsen’s infamous work on the Senate Finance Committee, where for a long time he was chairman? Halberstam gives us no details at all, being content instead with such vagaries as: “Since Bentsen held such an influential position on the Senate Finance Committee, he did not need to become a household face. Those who needed to know how powerful he was knew; those few who should have known but did not would learn soon enough.” More accurately, Halberstam could have said that everyone who followed the committee’s work learned soon enough that Bentsen was an eager stooge of the banking and insurance lobbies, and one of President Reagan’s most important allies in deregulating industry and giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and rich individuals. (See, for example, Ronnie Dugger’s On Reagan: The Man and His Presidency.)

Halberstam, I fear, has had his ticket punched too often by the establishment. But let’s not end on that note. Long ago, covering the Vietnam war for The New York Times, the establishment looked upon Halberstam as an outlaw reporter. Here, he almost sounds like the angry reporter of those days when he points out “the double standard used in Washington and other Western capitals to judge the value of African lives compared with Western or Caucasian ones.” He was speaking of how help may have been delayed for Bosnia, but it never came at all to Rwanda. “The world sat by and watched” as “some eight hundred thousand and perhaps as many as one million, most from the Tutsi tribe, were murdered in one hundred days in what was…’the most efficient killing since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’… Much of the killing was done with machetes. Often Tutsi feet were chopped off to make them shorter in death than the Hutus who had murdered them.”

And then came the shameful finale. Three years after this genocide, President Clinton flew into Kigali, the country’s capital, and, in a three-hour ceremony, presented the president of Rwanda with a plaque honoring the dead. “He did not leave the airport,” writes Halberstam, “and the men piloting Air Force One never turned off the plane’s engines.”

Robert Sherrill keeps his eye on all things political for the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST