Encouraging faith in the country and resilience after the recent election outcome, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Halberstam spoke on his experience covering the Vietnam War and his current political opinions at a talk Wednesday.
Over 500 adults and students crowded into the Sterling Law Building auditorium to hear the author and former New York Times reporter give a speech entitled “Iraq and the Shadow of Vietnam.” In his speech, Halberstam outlined the similarities and differences between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War. Drawing on his firsthand knowledge of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, Halberstam also made suggestions for the direction of the current administration’s involvement in Iraq.
“There is and there isn’t a parallel, it is more about the way we behave than similarities between these two unlikely countries,” Halberstam said. “I am aware that there are vast differences between Vietnam and Iraq and that the dangers posed are much different. It is a danger to overstate the similarities.”
During the talk, Halberstam said that the administration’s “rush” to wage war on Iraq was a reckless decision. As in Vietnam, the administration overrated its allies and military power and underestimated the enemy, he said.
“We had not made sufficiently the case for weapons of mass destruction and our leadership had gravely underestimated the capacity of the other side,” Halberstam said.
But Halberstam said there is noticeable progress in Iraq since the American intervention began.
“The reaction to our presence has come far more quickly than I expected,” he said. “For all my pessimism I am stunned.”
Halberstam also emphasized the differences between Iraq and Vietnam. Unlike in Vietnam, the media in the Arab world today is a strong influence and one which the United States will have to overcome if it wants to be accepted in the Middle East, Halberstam said.
Speaking on the U.S. media’s coverage of the war, Halberstam said he was “irate” at the press’ early suggestions of American victory. The United States was claiming the war was over in light of inital military successes while the stuggle had actually just begun, he said.
“In baseball terms, we were first out, first inning,” he said.
As a young reporter covering the Vietnam conflict, Halberstam said he received criticism from high government officials, including former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who attacked him both personally and professionally.
But Halberstam said what he and others gained from their Vietnam experiences cannot be learned by others who were not there.
“What I got in Vietnam was a great education, a bitter one, not one that I wanted when I first volunteered for the assignment,” Halberstam said.
Audience member Jacqueline Costrini ’06 said she enjoyed the talk but wished that Halberstam had recognized more of the differences between the two wars.
“I think he was a very effective speaker but he missed some crucial differences between Iraq and Vietnam. For example we already captured Saddam Hussein,” she said.
Drew Bender ’06 said he valued the lessons Halberstam shared.
“I think one of the best things he said is that we should try to avoid vilifications and instead learn lessons from the past and apply them to where we are now,” he said.