Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Namesake

Anyone with a name like Vercingetorix is born to be a conquerer. It’s like Douglas MacArthur or Erwin Rommel, aka the Desert Fox. Beowulf is a name that connotes the war-like spirit, as does General McChrystal, whose name evokes something tangible yet precious. Ataturk is another name that produces a martial effect, as does Bismarck, though Clausewitz, who argued that war is a form of diplomacy, is a name that sounds incongruously effete for someone who advocated Genghis Khan-like pillage. On the other hand, Alexander Haig, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, doesn’t sound like the name of a general, even though he was one. Alexander Haig is more like the name of an expensive Madison Avenue optometrist. On the other hand, Nixon’s secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, may not have been a general, but he sure looked like one. Laird scared you, just like Sterling Hayden’s Jack D. Ripper did in Dr. Strangelove. The My Lai Massacre needed Calley, just as the Iran-Contra affair needed Oliver North, but those names are lacking the teeth of the hyena, Esau’s furry arms, or the mane of the Lion King. Circumstances made those military men, but they were not warriors like General Patton or David Petraeus, whose calm is mirrored by his title—Head of the U.S. Military’s Central Command. You can almost imagine his stationary, which has got to be an eye-stopper. Colin Powell seems to be cut from similar cloth. If he’d been a surgeon, his procedures would have been done laparoscopically, unlike the marauding Taras Bulba. And even when Ulysses Grant was a little boy, it was obvious there was always going to be a tomb named after him. Sherman and Lee opposed each other, but they both had tanks named in their honor, such was their parity. Their names come to a natural standoff, like the Monitor and the Miramax. Hannibal rhymes with cannibal (say no more), and Dwight D. Eisenhower was nicknamed “Ike,” which rhymes with pike, a reassuringly quaint implement of war. He married Mamie, but turned out be be as much of a swordsman off the battlefield as he was when he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.

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