Saturday, April 3, 2010

"A contagion of courage"

When Kissinger was playing Iago to President Nixon's Richard III, all the elements proper to a royal drama were present. But Kissinger wasn't simply the paragon of something past. He also used the modern techniques [of manipulating rational, bureaucratic structure] with a determined and narrow genius.

What isn't clear is whether he ever believed he would be serving the public interest. We don't know what went through his mind during his first months as President Nixon's National Security Council Advisor. Perhaps he underwent a sudden private revelation that he craved power and had the manipulative talents to gain it. Perhaps, in the adrenaline rush of that revelation, he forgot about the nature of public service.

With thanks to DL buddy Nick, without whose nudging I would have let the opportunity pass, last night I saw the "The Most Dangerous Man in America," the documentary on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, at Cinema 21 in Portland, and listened to Ellsberg himself in a Q&A session with the audience afterward.

It was an amazing experience, if by "amazing" we mean: "likely to make you feel like you're wasting oxygen that better people than you could be putting to use right now."

Or: "likely to make you realize that even people who are really smart and have pretty clear values don't have all the answers and can't always make everything have a happy ending."

There's a story Ellsberg tells in the film (it's also in his 2003 book Secrets) about a meeting he had with Henry Kissinger not long before Richard Nixon took office. Kissinger would be Nixon's National Security Advisor, and Ellsberg at that time held a high-security clearance position in the State Department. Ellsberg explained to Kissinger the cycle of reactions he would experience as he gained access to highly classified government secrets. First, said Ellsberg, you feel elation: You're now privy to the most closely guarded secrets the government holds. Apart from the ego gratification of that, there's the content itself--the things you'll now know that you didn't, and couldn't, before.

That leads to the second stage: You'll feel foolish, embarrassed to realize how naïve you had been, how many things you had recently believed that you now know simply aren't so.

Finally, Ellsberg told Kissinger, you'll come to feel that the American people are the foolish ones, since they aren't in the know like you and your cohort. Inevitably, you'll feel contempt for the people you're supposed to be serving.

Ellsberg notes that Kissinger originally favored a quick diplomatic end to the Vietnam war--essentially giving the US a "decent interval" by which to save diplomatic face and get our troops out. But the thought of anything other than unambiguous victory in Vietnam (whatever that might be) was anathema to Nixon, and Kissinger (who would later famously remark that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac") was more interested in the power that came from manipulating the President than in preventing a wider war in Indochina.

You may remember the results.

In the Q & A session after the film, several audience members raised variations of the same question: Why do our leaders sacrifice thousands upon thousands of (others') lives pursuing treasury-breaking wars with no connection to our national interest--and why are we so helpless to stop it?

Ellsberg, a Marine officer in the early 1960s, noted that courage--the willingness to take risk when the stakes are extraordinarily high--is not all that unusual on the battlefield, but much rarer when those soldiers return to serve their country civilian life. He specifically and unflatteringly referred to Colin Powell as one of those who were unable to break free of the cult of the secret and the pursuit of insider power through palace intrigues.

In fact, he wasn't terribly charitable to any of the players on the national stage right now: Not White House advisors; not the Congress charged with constitutional responsibilities of oversight; not the news media which, except for a rare interval lasting from the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the NYTimes and over a dozen other papers in defiance of the Nixon administration's efforts to invoke prior restraint, to the investigation and coverage of Watergate, has always been much more comfortable with access journalism than adversarial journalism.

And not the American public who, said Ellsberg, "must have the courage to face responsibly what we're doing in the world."

It was a very mixed experience: Ellsberg seemed genuinely appreciative of the chance to talk with people about the issues he has given himself to for forty years. (There were two moments, one in the film and one during Ellsberg's remarks, when the local audience reacted warmly to praise for Oregon's Senator Wayne Morse.) His own determination to continue his own political activism was evident and inspiring. But it would be impossible to miss his distinct lack of optimism about the future. He voted for Obama, and assumed he would do so again--at a couple of points he referred to Obama's re-election in 2012 as if it were a fait accompli. And yet he expressed little hope that Obama would end the war in Afghanistan--indeed he predicted an escalation of US troop involvement. Although he added somewhat wistfully, almost as an afterthought, that it's still early in Obama's first term; perhaps there's time for him to change direction.

Ellsberg nurtures no great expectations for the anti-war movement in connection with Iraq and Afghanistan (and as audience members noted, there's no draft and no Vietnam-equivalent daily media coverage to provide the added push this time around), yet he considers it necessary work. The anti-war movement, he pointed out, finally prevailed in the case of the Vietnam war . . . but it took ten years.

We need, he said, "a contagion of courage." And that's where things were left hanging.

(Ellsberg will be present for Q & A sessions with the audience after both showings tonight, and the film will be at Cinema 21 through next week.)

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