Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Excerpt Of The Day

This passage is drawn from page 148 of David Halberstam's truly excellent book on the US-Vietnam war called The Best and the Brightest. The passage concerns the South Vietnamese leader Diem, and how support for him within the upper echelons of the US government morphed from tepid in the 1950s to something greater later. It describes how that transformation, and the attendant heavier footprint of the US in Vietnam, took place:
It was a shaky basis on which to found a policy, but it did not seem like a major decision at the time, nor a major policy. The attitude was essentially that there was little to lose, a certain small investment in American money, virtually no investment in American lives. In the beginning there was little illusion about the legitimacy of the [Diem] government, or the state, or its chances for survival. That illusion would come gradually, later on, for a commitment is a subtle thing, with a life of its own and a rhythm of its own. It may, as in the case of South Vietnam, begin as something desperately frail, when the chances for survival are negligible. For a while, oxygen is breathed in, mouth-to-mouth, at great effort but little cost, and then the very people who have been administering the oxygen, desperate to keep the commitment alive (not because they believe in any hopeful prognosis, but because they do not want to be charged with failing to try and give first aid), look up one day and find that there is indeed a faint pulse, that the patient is more alive than dead. But at this point they are not relieved of their responsibility; instead, for the first the commitment really begins, and now they are charged with keeping it alive. It is a responsibility, it is real. Its death would mean genuine political repercussions.

No deep point here. Just wanted to share a really nicely written paragraph.


mcphisto said...

Ahsan, thanks for putting this up. David Halberstam's POWERS THAT BE was one of the reasons i chose to be a journalist and he still remains one of my favourite writers.

XYZ said...

Aah Ahsan, good selection but of course there IS a deep point here which pertains not only to the US but also to Pakistan (or any other state)... how governments and states sometimes stumble into positions without realizing it and certainly without considering the eventual repercussions. Pakistan's history is full of such examples. The Objectives Resolution that brought Islam into the Constitution leading to the emboldening of the religious right, the attempt to create 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan which began in the 1970s and morphed into the full fledged jihad of the 1980s, Operation Gibraltar, the Kargil strategic fiasco that Musharraf still considers a brilliant tactical ploy, Benazir Bhutto and Naseerullah Babar's involvement in the formation of the Taliban as a counter to the warlordism of Afghanistan, I could go on and on.

tralfam said...

"That illusion would come gradually, later on, for a commitment is a subtle thing, with a life of its own and a rhythm of its own..."

That's just beautiful. And I think XYZ is right that there is indeed a crucial point here about how states (or persons) can 'find themselves in' positions both impossible and surprising.

Ahsan said...

Yeah I get that Halberstam's point is an important one, and I recognize that, but when I said "no deep point", I just meant that I wasn't going to try to apply that thinking to any present day situation.

BTW, I really enjoyed his book on Michael Jordan too, called "Playing for Keeps". Really fun read.

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