If we had four or five Abbott Joseph Lieblings in Iraq and Washington, it might be a different war, one in which those hugely amiable, observant and amusable souls could bring us the news that, yes, war is hell and awful and hideous, but still, it is life carried on under exceptional but not deforming circumstances.
And so in war people continue to behave oddly, but perhaps a little more so, while correspondents are hired to notice that and report it as kindly as possible in the assurance that one day soon boredom will return, and with boredom or stillness who knows if there may not be the chance again to relish a good bottle of Petrus without listening for the sounds of gunfire or spite?
Instead, there’s something about this war, and the wounds it exposes in ourselves, that takes away a wise man’s faith in boredom, amusement and fine wine. And so to read A.J. Liebling now is an unbearable pleasure–not just to see what a resourceful, compassionate and entertaining man he was in the worst of his times–but to realize that our Reds’ modern fierceness, their absurd trust in our own power (and the Blues’ desperate loathing of it) leaves so little room for his quiet, patient good humor. Liebling delivered dispatches not just as a job, nor even because he needed to keep writing to avert the monstrous depression he felt lurking, but because describing human vagary in times of appalling melodrama and steady damage was to keep faith with the necessity of his war (the Second World War). And that is the difference: Nowadays our wars are so far from necessary that their cruelty and caprice still the urge to speak.
For instance, in March 1942 Liebling finds himself as the lone passenger on a Norwegian tanker, convoying back to the United States with water ballast, so that it can return to Europe sleek and slow with oil. It is an uneventful crossing, in which Liebling’s unquenchable fondness for the Norwegians clashes with their lugubrious lack of words, baseball stories and piquant rations. We do not need to know the gourmet in Liebling. It is enough to hear him list the servings of milk soup and other shipboard schemes to evade starvation. But somehow, in some dank recess of storage or suspended nature, there are eggs:
The ship had not taken stores for more than three months now, and the eggs caused a daily argument between the steward and me. For several mornings he had served them hard-boiled, a sign he had no real confidence in them. [This is crucial, for in Liebling’s eyes confidence–in being wrong as much as being right–determines most human action.] Each morning I would open my first egg and say, “Darlig,” which is Norwegian for “Bad.”
The steward would protest, “Naj, naj.”
“But this one has green spots inside the shell,” I would say.
“Ex like dot sometimes,” he would maintain.
The captain always ate his eggs without any remark; his silence accused me of finicking. At last, one morning towards the end of the voyage, he opened an egg and looked at the steward. “Darlig,” he said. The steward looked embarrassed. Then the captain ate the egg; a bad hard-boiled egg is probably as nourishing as a good one.
Next morning the steward brought me an amorphous yellow mass on a plate. It tasted mostly of sugar, but he offered me a jug of maple- and cane-sugar syrup to pour on it. I took a spoonful, fancying it some Norse confection, and said, “Not bad. What do you call it?” The steward said, “I call it ummelet. Same ex.”