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Vonnegut, Halberstam, Imus, and the Good Germans

by Gary Gordon, 4/29/07
Published on the Impractical Proposals blog

     When I was growing up I was taught, among other things, one of the worst things a person could be was “a good German”.
     By that it was meant a citizen of a country engaged in war crimes who either knew about the crimes and ignored them, or was actively complicit.
     Now, decades later, after actively opposing the Vietnam War and Reagan’s military exploits in Nicaragua and Grenada and Bush I’s aggressions in the Gulf War, I have become that worst thing.
     I am a “good German.”
     My country commits war crimes and I work to earn enough to afford health insurance, I read books, go to movies, hear music, watch too much TV, and write—but I do not, in the words of Mario Savio, reckon with the odiousness of the machine such that I put my body “upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus… to make it stop.” I have not, other than with words spoken and written, and votes, indicated “to the people who run the machine, to the people who own it, that unless (we’re) free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
     If I were an Iraqi and somehow emerged victorious such that I could convene or participate in a War Crimes trial, I would try the leadership of the United States, then I would try the American people, and I would say, “Didn’t you know? Why didn’t you do all you could to stop it?”
     I met and interviewed Vine DeLoria in April 1973, as the American Indian Movement seizure of Wounded Knee continued, and he said “We used to think if we showed the White man what he had done, he would care and do something. Now we know he just doesn’t care.”
     That was almost a year after I met Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. at the Republican convention in 1972 in Miami Beach. It was on the last evening of the convention, demonstrators were trying to pull off very intricate mobile civil disobedience actions all around the convention hall, and I found myself inside the fence, outside the hall, with Yippie activist Jerry Rubin, who was asking me if he had the right credentials.
     “Jerry, how’d you get these? I heard they weren’t going to let you and Abbie in.”
     "Are these the right ones?”
     I compared them with mine. “They look right to me.
     Moments later we were joined by Vonnegut and Peter Schrag of Saturday Review. Vonnegut was taken with the size of the cops’ riot batons, longer than baseball bats.
     “Look at the size of those,” he said as police and military choppers flew overhead and faint whiffs of tear gas began to infiltrate the yard.
     Then we turned to watch a confrontation between a Miami Beach councilman and Rubin. The councilman had run up to us, furious, frustrated, demanding to know how things had gotten out of hand. “I voted to let you camp in the park,” he said. “Now they’re slashing tires. Why?”
     Rubin shot him a cold look and answered, “In your heart you know they’re right.”
     The councilman left, still furious and talk briefly turned to the demonstrations. Vonnegut asked what Rubin thought about the demonstrations; Rubin replied they had no power. Vonnegut was about to follow up when we were hit with pepper gas. The group broke up, fleeing into the convention hall.
     In his November 1972 Harper’s Magazine piece on those political conventions in Miami Beach, Vonnegut imagined a visitor from another planet would observe: “The two real parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and Democrats, instead.” He notes the Winner’s axiom: Ignore agony. And later in the piece he notes: “The Winners are at war with the Losers, and the fix is in.”
     In a graduation speech he gave a two years earlier, he advocated keeping ROTC on campus, with their guns and tanks, so student activists could see what they’re up against.
     His wisdom had its moments of humor and pessimism, or his pessimism had its moments of wisdom and humor, or his humor had its moments of pessimism and wisdom. Take your pick.
     On April 21, another wise man died, David Halberstam, author of one of the most profound books on the Vietnam War, The Best And The Brightest, a seasoned reporter and author who got his training in skepticism and thick skin covering Civil Rights in the South, then covering Vietnam. John Kennedy wanted him fired, his reporting of the truth versus the official line was that good.
     There is a section, a wrenching, heartbreaking, frustrating, mind-bending, twisted moment near the end of Halberstam’s “The Best And The Brightest” when he tells of two chance meetings between Walt Rostow, a national security advisor to Kennedy and Johnson and fervent supporter of the Vietnam War, and Daniel Ellsberg, who had doubts in 1965 and after returning in 1967 was sure the Vietnam misadventure was a failure, found on pages 773 and 774 of my dog-eared 1973 paperback edition:

     (Rostow) made his predictions and nothing bothered him. He could grab Daniel Ellsberg in 1965 and excitedly pass on the news about the bombing (which to most experts in the CIA had already proven itself to be a failure): “Dan, it looks very good. The Vietcong are going to collapse within weeks. Not months but weeks. What we hear is that they’re already coming apart under the bombing.” They did not come apart in a few weeks, but neither did Rostow, and Ellsberg went off to Vietnam, where for two years he became something of an authority on the failure of the Vietcong to collapse. Two years later, tired, depressed, and thoroughly pessimistic about the lost cause in Vietnam, he returned to Washington, where he found Rostow just as upbeat as ever.
     “Dan,” said Rostow, “it looks very good. The other side is near collapse. In my opinion victory is very near.”
     Ellsberg, sick at heart with this kind of high level optimism which contrasted with everything he had seen in the field, turned away from Rostow, saying he just did not want to talk about it.
     “No,” said Rostow, “you don’t understand. Victory is very near. I’ll show you the charts. The charts are very good.”
     “Walt,” said Ellsberg, “I don’t want to hear it. Victory is not near. Victory is very far away. I’ve just come back from Vietnam. I’ve been there for two years. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to see any charts…”
     “But the charts are very good…”

     Now our president says the “surge is working” and charges the Democrats with wanting to override the wisdom of his generals and play politics, as if Bush hadn’t already fired all the generals who disagreed with him and actually stood up and said this war was a crazy, tragic mistake.
     In case you don’t get it, Iraq is Vietnam, as Vietnam is the Washita and Wounded Knee.
     I looked up what Harper’s Magazine wrote about the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 and found this, the only mention, in their Monthly Record of Current Events, in the March 1891 issue:

      Fears being felt of an uprising among the Sioux Indians in the northwest, large numbers of troops were sent to the frontier… Several conflicts occurred… between hostile Indians and United States troops—one at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, December 29th, in which 30 soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry… and nearly two hundred Indians were killed.

     Nothing to suggest the precursor of My Lai or the roughly 65,000 civilians killed in Iraq.
     Maybe it is too harsh to judge myself a Good German, and too harsh to judge others that way, too, especially the ones who fancy they are making a difference with their marches and emails. Maybe we are all doing our best to end this war, to reverse the course of Empire… but deep down, in the places we don’t like to go, we know it isn’t so. We are not threatened enough, motivated enough, enraged enough, desperate enough to do what we know needs to be done to stop the extermination machine. We’ve even got reasons to make distinctions between what the Germans did and what Americans do; I have made these arguments myself, vigorously, arguing Hitler’s killing machine was targeted, vicious, efficient, determined to kill everyone not acceptable to his sense of what is pure Aryan, as if the fact that it was all of that really differentiates it from the bombs we drop in what Lewis Lapham believes is not a war to end terror or create democracy but is actually an entrepreneurial venture designed to line the pockets of the rich investors regardless of the human cost.
     Ignore agony.
     I know we are not desperate, because we don’t strap bombs to ourselves and blow ourselves up in an effort to drive the occupiers out. I know we are not doing all we can because we don’t want to risk all we have. We do not have the courage of the American revolutionaries who put their lives on the line for what they believed. I often imagine that level of desperation—well, not often, not when I’m watching Law & Order reruns or ballgames. I think about this as I listen to friends argue Israel should give up the land it took and yet they don’t give their land back to the Indians and argue “it’s not the same thing” as if it isn’t the same thing.
     I have often thought that what separates us from other animals is not an opposing thumb but the sophisticated ability to rationalize.
     My friend Nancy sings a song, “I don’t see no Saints around here…”
     We are not saints. And we are not always wise. And we are not always as courageous as our values and principles demand. Which is why we need visionary artists and dogged reporters to at least show us an elevated plane of thought and truth, and why we should reflect, at least for a moment, when we lose a visionary artist or a dogged reporter.
      Instead, all too often, we are left with the likes of Don Imus. I know there is no God because Halberstam was killed in a car crash, not Imus.
     Imus, of course, is one of the American Goebbels, rotting minds, preoccupying minds, distracting minds, massaging minds, stirring minds with stupid redneck racism, a punk pied piper of pusillanimous prevaricating pseudo-punditry, enticing adults with eight-year-old mentalities, an alcoholic and drug addict filled with self-hate who foists his hatred on others and cons people into believing it’s satire (like Twain?) or profound humor (like Lenny?), totally incapable of making anything but false comparisons to those and other geniuses who turned their talents, as did Vonnegut and Halberstam, to fighting power, speaking truth to power, not shilling for it.
     I have no ending for this piece other than to suggest that each of us must be less of a Good German than we already are. I say that having no confidence that minimal step will lead to the justice we want, just as reducing gas consumption by increasing mpg will not end Global Warming. But let’s be honest. We will deceive ourselves until we are desperate enough to act courageously.