Review of “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Critics are supposed to criticize, yes?

If you’ve read more than one of my book reviews, you’ve likely noticed a tone of glad, unbroken praise. Once or twice I’ve used these pages to cast the stern, disapproving eyebrow, but it’s mostly sweetness and light I try to spread. I love books, and, life being short, I mostly read books I think will reward me.

This summer I finally got around to reading David Halberstam’s 1969 masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest. It tells how the most privileged, idealistic constellation of political leaders in the history of the United States committed the long series of moral crimes and strategic blunders that made up our “experience” in Vietnam. Americans’ belief that our government would do the right thing and tell us the truth has never recovered. I think it would be hard to call yourself a student of our national history without reading this book. Do so without delay.

But, as I sat outside enjoying the long German summer along with Halberstam’s classic, I couldn’t help feeling that things, as nice as they were, were perhaps going on too long. Halberstam especially.

So, I’m just going to say it: The Best and the Brightest would be a far better book if it were half as long. As is, it clocks in at 665 dense pages. And don’t get me wrong; it is never boring. Halberstam is a masterful writer with an eye for the revealing detail. But there are just so many of them.

As Halberstam puts each of the major Vietnam players and several of the not-so-major Vietnam players under the microscope, one wonders if we need the same cellular level of detail on the whole cast of characters. While it is illuminating to see how the nerdish National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy followed a path from Groton to Yale to Harvard, evincing “so much intelligence harnessed to so much breeding,” as Halberstam puts it, we get several more pages illustrating just how and why Bundy’s Harvard years were so happy. He reads the Greeks; comes to be tutored by a little known professor named Henry Kissinger–an important observation but one that should be made and moved on from. We all know who Kissinger will become.

In about half the space he actually takes, Halberstam could have reached his useful, important conclusion, that Bundy, like so many of the men who took us to war in Vietnam, was an example of “a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country.” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s background at Ford Motor Company (and, yes, Harvard) is revelatory.

My point in criticizing Halberstam is that his thesis is too important to leave sloshing around in a sea of tidbits and longeurs. The path to Vietnam had two defining characteristics. One: it was forged by a small clique of power elites disconnected from the national will and was therefore undemocratic. Two: it was based on a delusion born of our experience in World War Two that said technical know-how wedded to managerial ability would infallibly deliver war-winning power and insight. The tragic narrative that Halberstam tells with such admirable skill pierces this delusion. America’s best and the brightest just knew we were winning in Vietnam. That’s what all the spreadsheets and data points and PSYOPS studies were telling them But the managerial class missed the fact that “when they had brought . . . the slide rules and the computers which said that two plus two equals four, that the most basic rule of politics is that human beings never react the way you expect them to.” The Vietnamese got a vote in the outcome of the war too, and our best and brightest ignored it and distorted it and misunderstood it for decades. Until we lost.

So again I say, read Halberstam without delay. Even if you have little interest or education in foreign affairs, it is instructive to see just how damnably wrong we can be about our deepest convictions.

Review of “I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche” by Sue Prideaux

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

There’s a simple, three-part diagram that everyone learns as the foundation of communications theory. A box or circle marked “sender” occupies the diagram’s left side; a “receiver” sits to the right. In the middle is a big block arrow labeled “message.”

The idea is, the sender can send whatever message he wants–and its intent can be perfectly clear to him–but the interpretation of what he says is ultimately done by someone else. So once a message leaves your mouth, any number of audiences can seize on it and turn it into their own message, starting the cycle anew.

And even though this image implies that messages, once launched, are perpetually in motion–interpreted, reinterpreted and passed along–some interpretations get locked in. They become part of a record.

Anyone vaguely familiar with the 19th century German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche knows that some of his ideas were endorsed by Hitler’s National Socialists. That part of Nietzsche got locked in. The Nazis asserted that, with God and morality killed off by Nietzsche, Germany had a natural right to pursue its will to power and rule mercilessly over Europe’s Untermenschen. Whoever lacked the means to stand up to Nazi strength deserved to be extinguished as weaklings.

Wasn’t that the whole idea of Nietzsche’s best-known book, Beyond Good and Evil? Once you have dispensed with the axiom that there is a higher moral law inscribed somewhere above the human plane, all you are left with to guide human behavior is the set(s) of rules we come up with ourselves. Those rules might not have anything to do with good and evil.

Again, if you are vaguely familiar with Nietzsche, you have likely heard, in response to his unwelcome reputation as a pro-Nazi philosopher, some muffled, unconvincing noises by intellectuals to the effect that the Nazis oversimplified Nietzsche and basically got him all wrong.

Before I go on to praise Sue Prideaux’s extraordinarily good 2018 book I am Dynamite: A Life of Friederich Nietzsche for its astringent articulation of an actual, effective defense of Nietzsche, I would like to dispense with another, related injustice against the man. In addition to the handful of critics who occasionally make a specific case against Nietzsche as proto-Nazi, there is a whole, broad phalanx of cultural conservatives standing ready to assert that anyone who declares God dead is clearly playing with fire and deserves no conscientious defense of his principles. The principles of God, country, and decency are sacrosanct and must ipso facto be left unquestioned. Without them, society would break down into a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare.

To which Nietzsche would–and did, in a way–reply: Society already is a cluster of delusions, and if we do not rigorously and passionately apply to them the remedies of irony, solidarity and critical thinking, our collective delusions may in the end be indistinguishable from a nightmare.

Nietzsche did not declare that he had killed God. Rather, that we had. He was God’s coroner, not executioner. Look around you, Nietzsche implores–at the material-economic basis of all our everyday desires, at the inexorable growth of faith in science, at the inattention to serious moral reasoning–and you cannot find a single person living as if they believed with any seriousness in the Abrahamic God or the strictures He dictated. You may mouth the words of faith, but actual, sincere belief evaporated ages ago, leaving behind a mere husk of symbol and ritual that we cannot bring ourselves to abandon.

Prideaux’s title is masterfully chosen. To the uninitiated it provokes a kneejerk response along the (old) lines of, “I am dynamite, huh? Okay, once again we have Nietzsche proclaiming with reckless braggadocio that he blew up the foundations of Western culture. Well, Western culture is still here, isn’t it? The Pope is still on his throne.” But why would Prideaux have written the book if she only wished to pound the same old nail into his coffin?

There is, in fact, no nail, no coffin.

Nietzsche, who gradually lost his mind as he was writing his books, did occasionally give voice to braggadocio, or so it seemed. But his claim to be dynamite was more an expression of existential disquiet over his inability to inhabit the customary role of a writer. He wanted to be what it indeed appeared that he was, and what it would have been so comforting to go on posing as–a mere man, a critic with something urgent to say but which still somehow fit into the normal range of rational disputation.

But instead, Nietzsche removed a veil of hypocrisy so huge that it exposed all of literate society. He felt the weight of this act, and said of it:

I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful–of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man, I am dynamite.

I imagine this last sentence being spoken with an awful, quiet sense of alienation, not boastful pride.

Nietzsche did what others were unwilling to do. His statement that God is dead, Prideaux summarizes, “had said the unsayable to an age unwilling to go so far as to acknowledge the obvious: that without belief in the divine there was no longer any moral authority for the laws that had persisted throughout the civilization built over the last two thousand years.”

Prideaux understates the case, though. There has never been anything other than human will and wit and creativity behind our laws. By saying the unsayable, Nietzsche not only pulled the rug from under us in the here and now, but pointed out in hindsight there had never been a rug. Humanity was and always had been alone without a law giver. This yawning abyss of nothingness is the one Nietzsche is famous for peering into.

This much is my interpretation of Nietzsche, straight, with only a supporting word or two from Prideaux. Why read her book, and not Nietzsche himself?

Certainly read Nietzsche, but without some kind of scheme for making sense of him, you will almost surely come to feel lost. Nietzsche must be read in order, for the first time, and it is essential to know the circumstances that set the stage for each book. Prideaux charts with remarkable clarity and a completely engrossing narrative the path Nietzsche followed from one book to the next. Even if you never go on to read a word of Nietzsche, you will gain from Prideaux’s highly lucid retelling of his life and how it shaped his books.

Second, more than almost any other philosopher, Nietzsche’s message to the world was influenced and amplified by the first generation of his admirers and critics. They delivered Nietzsche. Without the (now) little known Danish critic Georg Brandes, who brought Nietzsche’s writings onto the international stage, we might not even know of Nietzsche today. Almost all of Nietzsche’s books had been remaindered after selling mere hundreds. Pitifully, Nietzsche took to writing his own reviews, because nobody else noticed him. It took a decade after Brandes brought Nietzsche’s writings to the attention of a network of European scholars that Nietzsche’s book sales took off. By the time his books became a phenomenon, he was done as a writer, mentally incapacitated, completely unable to craft or deliver his own messages.

The heart of Prideaux’s book is the definitive case it makes that Nietzsche’s officious, anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth was almost entirely responsible for warping Nietzsche’s ideas into pro-Nazi slogans and handing them off to the Third Reich. Ordinarily one must turn to fiction to find a villain who so wholly earns one’s hatred and contempt, but Prideaux’s portrayal of Elisabeth as a fraud, fabricator, professional liar, and unquenchable narcissist delivers the real thing. I counted three place in the text where Prideaux uncovers that it is precisely Nietzsche’s rejection of Elisabeth’s anti-Semitism that caused him to break from his siter. A “QED” might usefully be inserted after each one of these.

Finally, Prideaux’s retelling of Nietzsche’s life offers an indirect and highly humanizing glimpse into the question of mental health. Everyone knows Nietzsche “went crazy” toward the end of his life. Remember that conservative crowd I mentioned, always standing ready to warn of the dangers of declaring God dead? There’s another message always ready on their lips: that secular intellectualism is a kind of sickness, which taken too far leads to psychosis and breakdown. Nietzsche had it coming.

There is no point, of course, in addressing this witless attitude directly. With heart-piercing empathy, Prideaux re-describes Nietzsche’s mental decline without the victim-blaming tropes we still haven’t shaken free of. Nietzsche’s father died of a stroke or aneurism that was clearly preceded by neurological symptoms that would likely be diagnosed today. Nietzsche’s own mental decline followed, as night follows day, a fairly ordinary, possibly treatable concatenation of physical conditions. Today’s doctors might have seen it coming. Drugs might have helped.

Nietzsche called himself the “philosopher of perhaps.” He thought humans should stop seeking certainty, that it was bad for us. He preached amor fati, the assertive act of loving life no matter what fate brings your way. What eventually came Nietzsche’s way, in the decade after he broke down and stopped writing, was the existence of a zoo animal. His sister Elisabeth kept him locked in a house that was destined to become a Nazi shrine. Mute, eyes vacated of life, she showed him off to visitors, all of whom were assholes. In 1933 Elisabeth traded away Nietzsche’s favorite walking stick to Adolph Hitler, in exchange for the new F├╝hrer‘s riding crop.

Nietzsche is not one of my life-altering heroes. But I do feel a duty to recall him as someone who is on my side, who doesn’t belong to the Nazis, jackals and troglodytes of the world. There is no way Nietzsche could have accepted the fate of his last ten years of life, nor the damage done to his ideas by his sister during that time. It is up to us to recall Nietzsche for who he was and to give him a fate worth loving. Prideaux’s book helps immensely in this worthy project.