Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2004 / 12 Tishrei 5765

Jay D. Homnick

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The trumpet unblown | President Bush in his new interview with Time has created the first memorable phrase of the Iraq War: 'catastrophic success'. Than which a more cringe-inducing formulation is scarcely imaginable. Inadvertent, perhaps, but a gift advert for the other side. This cleverly circuitous form of self-congratulation ("I'm too sexy for my shirt") may go over real well with the boys in the Cabinet room, but out in the real world it represents a huge airlift of free ammo for the Kerry folks who were surrounded on their Swift boat.

Political campaigns are a form of advertising (not for nothing is Madison Avenue named after a President). And one need not be excessively jingoist to refrain from writing jingles for the opposition. Already Mr. Edwards has offered to split the difference: "Catastrophic yes, success no".

Yet in the shadow of this disaster there is a nugget of wisdom to be mined. Namely, that what the war in Iraq is lacking, more than a few good men, more than a few good bombs, are a few good phrases. The war on the ground has on the one hand mostly been won for a long time, and on the other hand will likely never be entirely won. No reason to suppose that the new improved Iraq will outdo in stability the old annoying Colombia. The war that needs winning, and in which winning is feasible, is the war for the hearts and minds. And that war, indubitably, is fought with words. Phrases. Poetry.

Yes, poetry. The felicitous fondle of the word of friendship. The hortatory hold of the word of hope. The salubrious surge of the word of strength.

In this context, it seems appropriate to juxtapose the Talmud and Lord Byron. The Talmud asserts that Ezekiah could have become the greatest king of all history had he capitalized properly on the victory over Sennacherib. Had he written an epic poem celebrating the miracle of the overnight epidemic which decimated Sennacherib's troops, he would have properly immortalized the grandeur of the moment. As a consequence, his name would have been forever linked with a great moment of national ascension. Instead, the stunning victory was lost in the same blink of an eye that encompassed it, and Ezekiah became just another lucky incumbent slogging his way through his term.

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It took about twenty-three hundred years before George Gordon, Lord Byron, captured the drama of that great event in verse:

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
The host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn has blown,
The host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpets unblown.

Ezekiah had the talent, too; later, when he made a miraculous recovery from an illness, he wrote a beautiful poem (Isaiah 38). But that was personal; the historical window had closed.

This is the danger of 'catastrophic success', winning so quickly that victory loses its flavor and the victor loses his savor. All that lingers in the popular memory is the attendant tedium of tying up the loose ends, tying down the technicalities. The Talmud offers the solution, and Lord Byron offers dramatic confirmation. Catastrophic success can be yet parlayed into historical resonance, the fleet moment harnessed into eternal service. But only in one way, by the word. The word of poetry. The word with flair, memorable, quotable, tongue-rollable.

How about this? "The ship of freedom has set sail in Iraq and the tyrant remains standing in the dock." "Lady Liberty has reached across the oceans to embrace the hopes and dreams of the Iraqi people." "Let Saddam Hussein deliver the word to all the merchants of terror and tyranny, Freedom has prevailed in Iraq and it will stand victorious in the entire world."

No, I fear that my material lacks the snap, the fire, that can be mustered only by the warrior himself, the leader of men, who knows the pain in their hearts as well as the steel in their spines. You can do it, Mr. President, we know you can, you have another George, Lord Byron, to show you the way.

Come on, now, what's holding you back? Cat's got your strophe?

JWR contributor Jay D. Homnick is the author of many books and essays on Jewish political and religious affairs. Comment by clicking here.


09/03/04: Justice — Swift and poetic
07/20/04: His Bond is not his word
07/12/04: Hair today, gone tomorrow
07/02/04: An Oval quandary: The Incredible Shrinking President
06/15/04: The man who never went gray
05/25/04: Desert (brain)storm
05/17/04: To be a Jew: What the murderers of Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl knew
04/21/04: The doctor is not in
03/17/04: Yanqui go home
02/09/04: Bush's full courting of Meet the Press (and other tales of Kay's treat)
01/08/04: Is taking two tablets bad for your constitution?
01/02/04: Watching the Dean's office
11/21/03: Ronald Reagan — so misunderstood
11/14/03: Mulling (And Culling) The Democratic Field
11/11/03: World Seriously crazy: Grand malay seizures and Gibson screwballs
10/28/03: Bible or Babble in Babylon?
09/05/03: Dubya's last stand?
08/26/03: They don't sue prematurely (Tales Out Of Court)
07/29/03: Equipped with a quip, he gave the Hope
07/11/03: Speaking of Euro mania
06/27/03: The Tempest (not "The Taming of the Shrew")
06/16/03: Iraq and roll
06/05/03: Is Castro convertible?
05/23/03: Taxonomy of senatorial types
04/23/03: The Nutrasweet War against the Axis of Evil: Did Rummy forget?

© 2003, Jay D. Homnick