Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 4, 2007

McCain in Baghdad

Even when you’re in Baghdad, as I am at the moment, it’s impossible to miss the furor back home over John McCain’s visit here a few days ago. The press seems to think it has caught the Senator in a big “gotcha” over his trip to the Shorja market on Sunday. McCain (whose presidential campaign, I should disclose, I am advising on foreign policy) touted his visit to the market as evidence that the Baghdad security plan, “Operation Fardh Al Qanoon,” is working.

“Hah!,” the news corps screamed. Reporters wrote that McCain was able to visit the market only because of “heavy” extra protection and that merchants there complained that overall security conditions weren’t great. All of this true, but taken in isolation it provides a very distorted impression.

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Even when you’re in Baghdad, as I am at the moment, it’s impossible to miss the furor back home over John McCain’s visit here a few days ago. The press seems to think it has caught the Senator in a big “gotcha” over his trip to the Shorja market on Sunday. McCain (whose presidential campaign, I should disclose, I am advising on foreign policy) touted his visit to the market as evidence that the Baghdad security plan, “Operation Fardh Al Qanoon,” is working.

“Hah!,” the news corps screamed. Reporters wrote that McCain was able to visit the market only because of “heavy” extra protection and that merchants there complained that overall security conditions weren’t great. All of this true, but taken in isolation it provides a very distorted impression.

Here’s the perspective the press isn’t providing: We are in the middle of a tough, bloody war in Iraq. Throughout 2006, the war was going very badly, especially in Baghdad. Large chunks of the city were subject to a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing, murder, and terrorism. Sunni families fled. Markets closed. Normal life ground to a halt. Those perilous trends have been stopped in the past few months and are beginning to be reversed. This is due to an increased deployment of Iraqi and American troops, and especially to the fact that Americans are no longer staying on their giant forward operating bases. They are patrollng more intensively from joint security stations and small combat outposts located in the middle of the city.

Though only three of the five extra brigades scheduled to be deployed have yet arrived in Baghdad, the offensive has already paid big dividends. A semblance of normality is returning in some neighborhoods, markets are reopening, sectarian murders and ethnic cleansings have been dramatically reduced. The situation still isn’t great, but at least the downward trend has been stopped. There have been a few big suicide bombings lately that obscure this improvement, but most of these have been outside Baghdad, where the current security operation is focused. Needless to say, coalition forces can’t magically pacify the entire country overnight—and that can’t be the measure of success or failure.

The fact that McCain was able and willing to walk around the Shorja market indicates that things are getting better, even if Iraq remains a war zone. Of course McCain had heavy security; he’s an especially attractive target for insurgents. But the market was functioning normally while he was there, and he wasn’t surrounded by bodyguards. He walked around freely without a helmet (though he was wearing body armor), and mingled with Iraqis. So did the other members of his delegation, as well as General David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

Reporters may think this was like a Sunday stroll in Central Park, but that wasn’t the view of the U.S. embassy’s security coordinator, who refused to sign off on McCain’s visit because he thought it was too risky. The Senator thought otherwise, and he made an important point with his visit. Actually, two points: first, that the situation in Baghdad is improving; second, that the news media are more intent on ridiculing rather than reporting the first bits of good news to come out of Iraq in quite a long time.

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Bookshelf

• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

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• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

John Heilpern, an expatriate Brit who reviews theater for the New York Observer, has now written an authorized biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf, 527 pp., $35), in which he endeavors mightily to prove that Osborne is not only worth remembering but worth performing. I’m not quite sure he succeeds, though his book is lively and readable (if not especially well organized). What he does succeed in doing is leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Osborne was a monstrously difficult man whose gifts, at least in the second half of his life, weren’t impressive enough to justify his bad behavior. Be forewarned, too, that John Osborne wasn’t written for an American audience, meaning that those who don’t already know a pretty fair amount about postwar England are likely to find certain parts of the narrative to be tough sledding. If you’re interested in Osborne, though, you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.

• Clive James, like John Osborne, is not nearly so well known in the United States as in England, and his latest book, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35), is unlikely to change that, partly because it is all but impossible to describe succinctly and partly because James himself is peculiarly resistant to pigeonholing. Not only is he a liberal who despises ideology in all its myriad forms and has a pitch-perfect ear for left-wing humbug—a combination of traits increasingly hard to find on either side of the Atlantic—but he is a spectacularly well-read cultural journalist who writes with witty flair about the most serious of ideas, which makes him an oddity in a po-faced world dominated by pop culture.

As for Cultural Amnesia, it’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them 20th-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them. Most of them are present for obvious reasons, though a few are ringers (I never did figure out why James thought Tony Curtis and Zinka Milanov belonged in a book about the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stefan Zweig) and several others are unlikely to be familiar to the average reader (I readily admit to never having previously heard of Egon Friedell or Alfred Polgar, though reading Cultural Amnesia made me want to know much more about them).

All this is part of the deliberately eccentric, wonderfully unpredictable charm of Cultural Amnesia, which is a cross between a philosophical dictionary and a bedside book for eggheads. Most of it is full of good hard common sense: I can’t imagine better short discussions of such widely varied figures as Raymond Aron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Jean-Paul Sartre, to name only a few of the people in whom James takes an interest. He is especially good on bad guys, for he writes with a razor and has an uncanny knack for summing up a lifetime of intellectual vice in one or two devastating sentences: “In the long view of history, [Bertolt] Brecht’s fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no nicer than Sir Oswald Mosley, and a lot more dangerous.” I don’t know when I’ve read a more quotable book, or a more stimulating one.

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