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Jewish World Review
March 28, 2011
/ 22 Adar II, 5771
Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt
"…as always in a moment of extreme danger things can be done which had previously been thought impossible. Mortal danger is an effective antidote for fixed ideas."
--Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
The world in 2011 seems much like that of the century before, and much unlike it. History doesn't repeat itself, it has been said, but it does rhyme. Not in any simple, clear way. But more like Emily Dickinson's rhymes -- assonant, subtle, on the slant. And sore must be the storm…
Once I tore off dispatches from the teletype machine in a little newsroom, alone in the middle of the night when I couldn't go home, consumed as I was by curiosity, anxiety, desperation about what would happen next in the latest war in the Muddle East. One clattering BULLETIN and FLASH would follow the other as the war approached its climax or anti-climax or neither…
One by one, the dispatches would pile up on the floor while I hastily searched for a clear pattern. There wasn't one. There wouldn't be till the history was written, the pieces of the puzzle forced together, glossed over, properly falsified in a secretary of state's memoirs, the blood washed away and the medals pinned on the corpses. In medias res, in the middle of the action, the fog of war provides decent cover, like a shroud…
The random headlines of victories and disasters, triumphs and tragedies, still carry a sense of urgency years later as they speak of events past in the present tense, making a kind of out-of-time poetry. Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt. It's as if nothing were ever lost, as if it were all still happening in some alternate universe where the dead still hold on to life and care about their fate. The past sends out its emanations from 1942, from 1956…
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"We are quiet, not afraid. Send the news to the world and say it should condemn the Russians. The fighting is very close now and we haven't enough guns. What is the United Nations doing? Give us a little help. We will hold out to our last drop of blood. The tanks are firing now…" --The last telex from Budapest, 1956. The clock ticks off every moment as it enters the past, unchangeable and irretrievable, but some events still echo….
"They bombed us with tanks, airplanes, missiles coming from every direction… We need international support, or at least a no-fly zone. Why is the world not supporting us?" --Mahmoud Abdel Hamid, a fighter with anti-Gadhafi forces in Libya, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2011. This time help has arrived. At last. Like the Allied aircraft breaking through the cloud cover over Bastogne to free the 101st Airborne.
Men still look to the skies from whence cometh their help. And in this endless chess game, the pawns still bleed…
And the statesmen still temporize. Politicians and generals prepare to explain why they were right all along, especially when they were wrong. Some play it safe by saying nothing at length, others by saying everything, covering all the bases. That way, with a little selective quoting, they can pass as prophets in the eyes of some future generation. The secret of forecasting the future is to be equivocal about it…
The complicated calculus of risk and security, advantages and disadvantages, is constantly being compiled in the think tanks and war rooms and around conference tables and in op-ed pieces for the New York Times … but, don't tell anyone, none of it matters. Not when, unexpected and unpredicted, history explodes in one country after another, this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. Where next -- Yemen, Bahrain, Syria? As the shock waves travel, west to east, the strangest of phenomena are reported all across the Arab world: demands for democracy, peaceful demonstrations, fleeing dictators. Along with the most familiar: innocents crushed, cities flattened, civilians massacred…
One headline after another comes as a surprise. Mubarak Departs. Demonstrations Spread Across Arab World. Libya Erupts. "Rebels on Run after Gadhafi Pounds Port/ Libya Dictator Will Prevail, U.S. Intelligence Chief Says … Strikes on Libya get OK at U.N./ No-fly Zone Also to Shield Rebellion … " Gadhafi Declares Cease-Fire, Continues to Attack. "ROMMEL DRIVES ON DEEP INTO EGYPT" --San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 1942…
It's all one big swirl of past and present, expectation and disappointment, an unforeseen sirocco blowing out of the desert, coming out of nowhere and hastening to the place where it arose, covering everything with dust…
None of this was anticipated. It was not possible. So said the graphs and pie charts and PowerPoint presentations and algorithmic computer modeling maintained at the Pentagon, in the think tanks, at Foggy Bottom, in faculty conferences on the Middle East, and they all proved worthless. Fixed ideas stayed fixed…
"All our models are bad," Mark Abdollahian told Wired magazine, "some are less bad than others." He ought to know, having been a government consultant on what the bureaucracy calls Power Transitions. So many probabilities, so few realities…
What went wrong? Why were all these experts, with all their expertise, reduced to blind men trying to grasp fog, always surprised by what is unsurprising once it occurs? The dithering, the vacillation, the reflexive defensiveness of leaders who do anything but lead, it would all be amusing -- except for the usual images of protesters gunned down, desperate refugees, dead children, mothers howling in grief…
The experts were so busy weighing the probable they overlooked what was possible. Or even Field Marshal Rommel's impossible, which suddenly becomes possible when circumstances are dire. Calculating everything, the experts forget about the incalculable. Like man's determination to be free.
Paul Greenberg Archives
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
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