There is considerable unease over President Obama and his leadership in the Afghan War, particularly because he is not one to utter the V-word — victory. He speaks of “a path towards ending the war” and so on. Not exactly a Churchillian rouser. That is why it was somewhat comforting to hear Defense Secretary Gates say, “We are in this thing to win.” Whew. Because, if not to win — why else be in it? It would be better to hear those words from the commander-in-chief; but if we have to hear them from a Republican secretary of defense, so be it.
‐Tuesday was a horrible day in Baghdad, as suicide bombers struck the capital in coordinated attacks. More than 100 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. With your permission, I would like to quote from my Iraq journal of a year ago. I visited the country under the auspices of the State Department. And the below excerpt involves a tour of the Doura Market in Baghdad’s Rashid District:
I walk for a while with General [Robin] Swan through a stretch of market. He notes a key distinction between now and before — between the post-surge Iraq and the pre-surge Iraq. He says that terrorists can still perform spectacular bombings — for sure. The thing is, sectarian violence does not follow those bombings. Life goes on. And the bombers are condemned.
Earlier I asked, “Why are these terrorists so hard to beat? Why can’t we subdue them, after all these years?” Swan chooses to answer this way. Pointing to a man in the market, he says, “Is he AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq]?” How about this one, how about that one? How can you tell? You cannot — that’s why it’s so hard. The terrorists simply melt into the population.
One more excerpt from that installment (Part IV) of that journal, if you will:
I’d like to mention this: When we toured through Doura, we wore our protective gear — our PPE. Vest and helmet. The military wanted it that way. And you might say, “If things are so great — if things are hunky-dory — why’d you have to go around in armor? Huh, huh?” The answer is: Things are not hunky-dory — not yet. But things are significantly better.
Another answer is: It takes only a few terrorists to make things blow up. What did the old left-wing bumper sticker say? “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.” And one terrorist can ruin your whole day, too. One Qaedist rolls a grenade in a marketplace full of thousands, and the folks back home say, “See? They don’t want us there.”
‐So often, the leaders of today’s liberalism remind me of how I thought, way back when, when I was “comin’ up” in Ann Arbor, Mich. — one of the great small citadels of the Left. Senate majority leader Harry Reid says that those who are trying to stop the kind of health-care system he favors are like the people who worked against the abolition of slavery, and who tried to preserve Jim Crow. I used to think like that too: Every leftward thrust was an attempt at progress, and all those opposed were trying to keep the world down. Then I turned about, oh, 17. I know it’s insulting — and I’m sorry about that (really) — but many of today’s liberals strike me as people who never really grew up. Many conservatives aren’t mature (including yours truly, some of the time), but conservatism, overall, is a mature view, I believe. (And I’m speaking of modern American conservatism — Reaganism — and none else, at the moment.)
‐This is a bit of good news: The current FBI director, Robert Mueller, has appointed a former FBI director, William Webster, to conduct “an independent review of the FBI’s probe of the Fort Hood shooting suspect.” I have quoted an Associated Press report, here. Webster is to “take a look at how the bureau handled information about Maj. Nidal Hasan before the shooting at the Texas military base that killed 13.”
I say this is good news because Webster — Judge Webster, as we have long referred to him — is one of the most trustworthy guys in the American political establishment. An example of integrity amid self-seeking and flakiness (and worse).
Just by the way: The report I have cited describes Hasan as “the Fort Hood shooting suspect.” Is he still merely that — the suspect? Are there other suspects? O.J. Simpson? Anyone out looking for “the real killer”?
‐Now that Mohamed ElBaradei is no longer head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he has become sort of interesting. Some in Egypt, his home country, have asked him to run for president. ElBaradei has said, essentially, that you can’t run for president in a non-democracy. Only the incumbent, the boss, can really and truly run. He said, specifically, “We shouldn’t fool ourselves. . . . We’ve reached rock bottom.” (Story here.) Oh, I don’t know about that: Egypt could go much farther down.
‐Are they still trying members of the SS? Yes. One Heinrich Boere is in the dock in Aachen. He killed three Dutch civilians during the war: a bicycle-shop owner, a pharmacist, and one other person (given no particular identification in this story). In a statement, Boere said, “As a simple soldier, I learned to carry out orders” — sure, Nuremberg. “And I knew that if I didn’t carry out my orders I would be breaking my oath and would be shot myself.” That is complicating, no doubt. More from the defendant? “At no time in 1944 did I act with the feeling that I was committing a crime. Today, after 65 years, I naturally see things from a different perspective.”
A melancholy statement, if an SS killer can be said to issue melancholy statements.
‐News of the Red Baron? Yes, there is news: A Polish historian has found his death certificate. You can read the story here. In that story, I learned this: “Richthofen was so well respected by his enemies that when he was shot down, British and Commonwealth troops buried him with full honors in Bertangles, near Amiens.” War occasions strange emotions, conclusions, and actions, you might agree (and if you can find a triter statement on the Internet today, I will buy you lunch). (Not really.)
‐In this story, I read that “Pope Benedict is praying at the foot of the Spanish Steps, keeping a tradition that rings in the Roman holiday season” — which, of course, led me to reflect on the Spanish Steps. So many things take place on those steps. You can pray. You can look out at the world. You can kiss a girl. You can read. You can just sit, and maybe plot your next move. So many things. One of those crossroads of the world, the Spanish Steps. And “Meet me at the steps” is one of the great phrases, at least in Rome. Although, in the age of texting, who needs to arrange a meeting place too far in advance?
‐I hope it won’t sound boastful or exaggerated to say that many, many readers have asked me to comment on Tiger Woods. (They have done this because I have written copiously about him, ever since he was an amateur.) (In golf, I mean.) I will comment, just a little.
Shortly after this story — these stories? — broke, a friend wrote me to say, “I’m sick over Tiger. Just sick. I know it’s weird, and I’m sure it’s unreasonable, but I feel betrayed.” I don’t know whether it’s unreasonable, but it’s not weird: Frankly, such a feeling strikes me as rather normal.
A different friend wrote, “I am shocked, genuinely shocked. I thought he was a straight-arrow, even if he liked to hang out with some rogues, such as Michael and Kobe. I thought he was a straight-arrow among rogues, a figure of rectitude, as well as athletic greatness.”
A different friend: “His ‘transgressions’ have let his family down, but also his country. Maybe no one should be asked to carry the burden of role model — to be a messenger of national cultural importance. But, fair or not fair, that is what he was. And I, for one, feel a real loss.”
Look, I could write for pages about Tiger, or say just a few words, and I’ll opt for the latter course: I hope he straightens himself out and goes on to live a good and glorious life, no matter what happens on the golf course. Of course, that is our prayer for a great many, right? (Golf aside.)
‐A reader writes to remind me that virtually nothing in America escapes the racial, and here is a story headed “Tiger’s troubles widen his distance from blacks.” Why’s that? Because his hook-up partners, apparently, have been white, like his wife, not black. That would seem the least important aspect of this drama, an irrelevancy — but not for some.
By the way, my essay on Tiger and racial pressure can be found in the collection advertised at the end of this column.
‐I’m going to tell you something that will let you sleep easier at night: “The White House is celebrating Christmas with recycled ornaments” (story here). Just in case you were tossing and turning over the White House’s greenness (and I don’t mean rookie-ness, although that is another problem — a real one).
‐Care for a little music? I said a few words about From the House of the Dead (Janáček) and Il Trittico (Puccini) for City Arts, here. Both of those operas have played at the Met (the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, I should specify). I have a music piece in the current National Review, too. It comments on Aprile Millo, the soprano (the diva, I should say, because she is one to an extravagant degree); Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the pianist (brainy Frenchman, big on contemporary music, a critic’s darling); and Alisa Weilerstein, the cellist (a Wunderkind — although, at 27, she’s not really a Kind anymore, but very definitely a Wunder).
‐Speaking of music: Some NRs ago, I had a piece on Nurre v. Whitehead, a case from out West — Washington State. What happened, in brief, was that a high-school wind ensemble wanted to play an instrumental version of an Ave Maria at graduation. The superintendent said no — on account of religion. A student sued. Hence the case.
Well, the Ave Maria in question is that of Franz Biebl, written in 1964. It is one of the most beautiful things in the choral repertoire (and not just for its period). Every year, Chanticleer gives a Christmas concert in the Metropolitan Museum, and, every year, they sing this Ave Maria as their sole encore — which happened again just the other night. I was there, and will say something about this concert in the next New Criterion.
Which leads me to say something about Christmas tracks . . .
‐Last year, I offered Impromptus readers three tracks — three special Christmas tracks, ones I value highly. There is nothing wrong with the albums from which these tracks come. The albums in their entirety are well worth having and listening to. It’s just that I was singling out some special stuff. And I said, cheekily, “Don’t say I never did anything for you — or never gave you anything for Christmas!”
Anyway, shall I remind you of those tracks? 1) Leontyne Price singing “O Holy Night” on this album. 2) Heidi Grant Murphy singing “Shepherd Pipe’s Carol,” by John Rutter, on this album. (She is accompanied on the piano by her husband Kevin.) And 3) Chanticleer singing “Jerusalem in the Morning,” which ends a medley, on this album.
By the way, “O Holy Night” was composed by Adolphe Adam, best known for his ballet score Giselle.
And do you want to hear the Biebl Ave Maria? Try Robert Shaw and his Chamber Singers on this Christmas album. Biebl’s piece is not explicitly for Christmas, but it certainly wouldn’t kill you, now or ever.
Oh, one more word, on the subject of Christmas tracks: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” either. Right? But that, really, is too obvious to point out . . .
‐Let’s end with a little language. As you know, there came a time when the disabled were referred to as the “physically challenged.” That led to some comic uses: for short people, “vertically challenged”; for bald people, “follically challenged”; and so on. Well, I’ve got a new one for you (at least it was new to me) — one meant to be serious. A reader sent me an article from Hawaii, here. It concerns a surfing invitational. It also concerns the danger of high waves. Anyway, let me quote:
“Emergency officials said that, if waves reach predicted heights, homes and roads are in danger of being washed away. ‘We are also concerned [about] possible damage to homes on the shorelines and also the hazard to all of our residentially-challenged families living on the beaches,’ said John Cummings, with Oahu Civil Defense.”
“Residentially challenged” — in case you want to tuck it into your repertoire. And, incidentally, doesn’t a job with the Oahu Civil Defense sound kind of nice?
Thanks and see you!