Jewish World Review April 3, 2003 / 30 Adar II 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Coffee, beignets and war | NEW ORLEANS Things shimmer. I'm not sure whether it's the usual New Orleans Effect or fever. My annual case of hay laryngitis chose this weekend to hit. Of course it couldn't pick a workday, when friends and colleagues would have been grateful. So here I sit at the Cafe du Monde in the Quarter, savoring the best of both worlds: the newspapers over cafe au lait and beignets.

One columnist is writing about how people should address Bill Clinton -- Bill, William Jefferson Clinton or Mr. President.

Me, I've always thought that political titles go with the office. And I mean go. When the politician leaves office, the title stays. Taking it with you is like leaving with the hotel towel.

Some professionals should keep their titles, like physicians and military officers. On the theory/pretense that they're always subject to being recalled to duty. So, Mr. President, just call me Captain Greenberg. Neither of us is a real one anymore, but what th' heck, it's America. Here distinctions are as plentiful as they are meaningless.

Up to 1,000 paratroops from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade landed in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq . .

The war news is never far away even if the war is. Here is a quote from Army Major General Stanley McChrystal: "The plan has moved almost exactly with expectations. Fast where we expected it to be, gathering strength where we expected to do that . ."

Translation: Situation normal, all, uh, fouled up. If things are going just as planned, why did the brass plan all these guerrilla attacks? Why are the 4th Infantry and 3rd Cavalry still en route? Why a lot of things?

"Guerrillas Aren't Fighting Fair," the straight-faced New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. What a surprise. It's my favorite headline yet of the war. Any day now we can expect to read that "War Is Hell."

Some of us would be more comfortable if we were being told: Our supply lines are stretched and exposed, we're being harassed by irregulars at key junctures, and we'll need massive reinforcements. It would sound as if somebody had a grip. Like Lt. Gen. William Wallace of V Corps: "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against."

He always is. No military plan survives the first contact with the enemy. Or at least it better not. It's when reality changes but the plan doesn't that armies get into trouble. Which was what made General Wallace's words, however unwelcome, refreshing. Like a dash of cold water in the face. He reminded us: This is war. It isn't maneuvers. It isn't another neocon theory. It's messy, and mistakes can be hazardous to your health. In response to General Wallace's candid comment, no doubt Washington has already moved to reinforce him with . a Public Information Officer.

The Pentagon's No. 2 general, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, said Iraq had executed prisoners of war in the week since the war began . .

Shades of Malmedy. Desperate armies tend not to have the highest regard for the rules of war. Especially if they're not armies at all but militia, irregulars, gunmen, paramilitary, terrorists . whatever description or euphemism you prefer. That we have so many grades and variations of cutthroat arrayed against Coalition forces in Iraq indicates that warfare in the Middle East hasn't changed all that much since Lawrence of Arabia. Or even Amalek.

Rommel drives deeper into Egypt as the 8th Army falls back on Alexandria . .

Wrong war. It must be the fever talking. I need a coffee au aspirin. But I can feel the fever lifting this time of day, the fluid images hardening and events again sorting themselves into different years and decades and wars. The arbitrary convention called reality is reasserting itself. This they call recovery.

Another vision appears: The soulful, changeless black saxophonist has taken his place on the sidewalk outside the Cafe du Monde where he's always been, and now he's playing his own riff on "Nearer My God to Thee." The illusion is restored: Life will go on as it always has in New Orleans even as the Afrika Korps approaches, or was that Alexandria? And were the dusty volumes in the second-hand book store on Royal the work of Walker Percy and Tennessee Williams, or Cavafy and Durrell? Cities and times and writers and wars mix.

G-d bless the armed forces of the United States of America.

It's the first clear thought/prayer I've had all day. The hard edges of things are coming back. The fever is lifting. I almost miss it.

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