The Dead Can Dance

Journalists are using the deaths of prominent people to comment on current-day problems.

When celebrities die, news outlets give us obituaries that are typically little journeys into the past. After all, the past is where the dead spent all their time. Now their work is done.

Except when it's not. Sometimes journalists use the deaths of prominent people from the past to comment on current-day problems and controversies. This is especially true when the dead person's prime was some long-ago epoch that looks and feels a bit like our own. If they acquitted themselves well back then—lived fearlessly, took bold, principled stands—immediately upon death they are put to work. Their past becomes a rebuke of our present, and the craven weaklings we have let ourselves become.

This is what happened in the last few weeks with Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam. Both men were so revered, their deaths would have been major obituary happenings in any case. But both were also closely associated with the '60s and the Vietnam War, the nearest analogue we have to Iraq. This made their lives not just relevant but also useful to a news business that is at once outwardly jaded about the current war and inwardly appalled at its own jadedness.

There was a subtle but unmistakable urgency to the obituaries and tributes, as if foreheads were being slapped in newsrooms across the country. Wait a minute—look at what these guys did and said! What are we doing with our lives?

The self-flagellation wasn't that literal, particularly in the case of Vonnegut, whose popular 1960s novels were not really about Vietnam per se. However, his books were embraced by the anti-war counterculture, as the obits prominently reported. In the first paragraph of a lavish front-page obituary, The New York Times noted that Vonnegut had "caught the temper of his times," and offered this snatch from Slaughterhouse-Five: "And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes." The Times didn't add, "So it still goes"—but it didn't have to.

A Los Angeles Times appreciation by David L. Ulin included the same body-count passage, while elsewhere that paper quoted an old Playboy interview in which Vonnegut said, "When a society is in great danger"—he cited Vietnam—writers are the canaries in the coal mine.

National Public Radio aired a 2003 clip of Vonnegut saying that Vietnam had freed him to speak up about war: "The Vietnam War made our leadership, our motives [seem] so scruffy and essentially stupid that we could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable—the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff."

On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann had this Vonnegut moment: "In 2003, speaking of the looming war in Iraq, he said that President Bush's policies were, quote, nonsense. Quoting further, 'I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. It has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Kops-style coup d'etat imaginable.' "

Halberstam made his name as a reporter in Vietnam, so the connection to journalism itself was more overt. "A Skeptical Vietnam Voice Still Echoes in the Fog of Iraq," said the headline over a New York Times "appraisal" by Dexter Filkins. A Houston Chronicle story tied his death to a recent Bill Moyers TV piece about journalism's early failures on Iraq. The headline: "A Reporter's Passing and a Scathing Documentary Spotlight the Best and Worst of American Journalism."

In The New Yorker, George Packer told a story about how, while covering the war in Vietnam, Halberstam had refused to shake the hand of an American general. Packer recalled reading Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest in Iraq in 2004, when "perhaps an element of professional caution had settled over ambitious journalists.... It's almost impossible to imagine a young correspondent refusing to shake the hand of a commanding general in the Green Zone."

Sometimes it takes the dead, of all people, to teach us about passion.