Political leaders matter. At least, that’s the argument David Halberstam makes in his first and perhaps best book, “The Best and the Brightest.” Published in 1972, it’s the definitive account of the decision-making process that led to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, written while the war was still being fought. It is impossible to walk away from Halberstam’s narrative without feeling depressed. With equal parts empathy and critique, Halberstam recounts a modern Greek tragedy about a conflict made worse by men of the highest caliber and with the best of intentions. “The Best and the Brightest” is a biography of the individuals who shaped U.S. policy on Vietnam for a generation, and by the end of the book, I came to resent their hubris, their fear and their intransigence, even as I came to like them personally and to understand why they made the decisions they made.
The silver lining of the book produces a similar cognitive dissonance, namely, that the Vietnam War – at least, the U.S. involvement in it – was avoidable. On one hand is comfort in the belief that the U.S. might have been able to avoid the conflict and that perhaps there are some lessons to be learned that can help prevent similar mistakes from being made in the future. (Unfortunately, the U.S. has a steep learning curve.) On the other hand is the crushing weight of the realization that it all might have been avoidable, and the practical implications of that realization for the soldiers and civilians who suffered needlessly and whose depredations might have been avoided if those with the power to make decisions had opened their eyes.
It would not have been easy, of course. The prevailing view in the United States was that the country was locked into a Cold War with the Soviet Union, a struggle of good versus evil, with both sides possessing weapons that could destroy the world at the push of a button. Containment had been U.S. policy for successive administrations under both political parties. The U.S. foreign policy establishment viewed Vietnam as part of the broader conflict with the Soviet Union, but Halberstam argues that was a fallacy. The Vietnam War, at its heart, was not about capitalism and communism. It was a chapter in a broader Vietnamese struggle for independence and self-determination, a truth most of the decision-makers never realized, in part because the experts who might have explained it to them had been tarnished and purged from the system by McCarthyism and replaced with less knowledgeable men who saw the world as they wanted to see it, not as it was.
And yet, even instinctually, most of the Kennedy and Johnson administration officials felt that something was wrong and sought moderation, which in practical terms meant neither peace nor all-out war but an escalating series of half-measures that, against an enemy as committed as North Vietnam, all but guaranteed defeat. Moderation often feels like the right choice, and sometimes it is. But one of Halberstam’s most cutting observations is that when it comes to war, moderation can guarantee defeat just as easily as failing to grasp the true nature of one’s enemy. If one political faction wanted American troops on the ground, and another faction wanted no American troops on the ground, reasonable men convinced themselves that having a small number of American troops on the ground was a good compromise and, therefore, good policy. But compromise is not virtuous in itself, especially not when it’s used to avoid making tough decisions. In that sense, Halberstam’s point isn’t just that Vietnam was avoidable. It might also have been winnable.
Halberstam has little to say about how the global balance of power affected decisions regarding Vietnam – his focus is on U.S. domestic political considerations. One could make the argument that international pressures forced the U.S. into its Vietnam-era policies, irrespective of the personalities and decisions of men like Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Try as I might, I don’t find those arguments particularly convincing. When it came to Vietnam, the decisions and behavior of a few key individuals really did matter. Perhaps those men could not have made different decisions – they were, after all, products of a system that had defined their worldviews. To disagree would have meant going against everything they thought they knew while risking their careers. In that sense, maybe they didn’t really have a choice. Perhaps wishing they had behaved any differently is asking for too much. But Halberstam’s most haunting conclusion is that the power to avoid the war, however hard that power would have been to wield, was not beyond the grasp of America’s best and brightest. For that argument alone, it is a book worth wrestling with.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis
“I wonder if all maps are stories. Or all stories are maps.”
In 2011, when Nour is 12, her father dies and her family, untethered from their lives in Manhattan, move back to Syria, her parents’ homeland. Then the shelling begins. Her family must leave Syria, and they follow “The Map of Salt and Stars” in search of safety. A thousand years before her, a young girl named Rawiya leaves her home at the tip of the Maghreb, in Ceuta, seeking adventure with a mapmaker named al-Idrisi. She travels with him from Fes to Sicily and Anatolia, then through the Levant and the Maghreb. The two girls’ stories are intertwined by their circumstances, the paths they follow and, most important, the fortitude of their character.
While Rawiya’s journey is fantasy – featuring everything from mythical beasts to legendary rulers – Nour’s is reality. Her family faces the perils that have become commonplace for the 11 million Syrians (the total population of my home state of Ohio) who have been displaced since the start of the civil war. They endure the loss of their home, the loss of limbs, treacherous sea crossings, food shortages, sinister smugglers, would-be rapists – the list goes on, and safety seems as much a fantasy as Rawiya’s story. But along the way, Nour’s family also encounters goodwill. They find allies, protectors and friends, many of whom are also experiencing the absolute worst moments of their lives but are still willing to share a scrap of bread, a spot in a van, even a place to sleep.
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s novel is powerfully evocative. It took me some time to settle into her writing – it’s more like poetry than prose – and throughout the book, I felt overwhelmed by her descriptions of light, color, sound and texture. There is a yawning gulf between my life and Nour’s, but nonetheless, Joukhadar’s writing brought me to some places we shared. In March 2015, I spent a week in Jordan working with Syrian refugee children. Most of them came from Daraa, in southern Syria, and their families left the country in the early days of the war. I struggled to comprehend what I saw: A little boy, his pant leg pinned at the knee and his sleeve neatly tucked at his shoulder. His mother and sister had died when their house was hit. Much like one of the children in Joukhadar’s story, he survived but was not left intact.
Next week marks the eighth anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The geopolitical entanglements of the war have become almost impossible to keep track of, with a constantly shifting landscape that includes not only a dictatorial government and numerous rebel forces but also terrorist organizations, proxy groups like Hezbollah, and foreign troops from countries jockeying for influence over Syria’s future, most notably the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Syria’s neighbors are bursting at the seams with refugees, barely able to extend the support these families need. The European Union seemed to be at its breaking point over the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea – a trek so deadly that only the most dire of circumstances could convince people to try it.
In the geopolitical melee, the individual has often been lost. Images of small children dead on the beach or shell-shocked in the back of an ambulance or gassed by their president occasionally captured the world’s attention. Humanitarian organization Save the Children reported that 45 percent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can impede their cognitive development – and therefore academic and professional achievement and earning potential – for the rest of their lives. For eight years, a generation of Syria’s children has been out of school or educated only when cease-fires and resources in camps allowed. They are a lost generation.
In geopolitical terms, the Syrian civil war is coming to something of an end. In human terms, its effects will last for decades.
Emma Pennisi, editor