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Letters


Unfair to Rosalind Franklin

I was dismayed to read the title ‘Rosy Revised’ given to Robert Olby’s review of Brenda Maddox’s Life of Rosalind Franklin (LRB, 20 March). The simple nastiness of James Watson’s caricature of ‘Rosy’ scarcely merits an editorial echo.

Readers unfamiliar with the key role that Rosalind Franklin’s unpublished data and findings played in the determination of the structure of DNA may wonder why so much has been written about the life of a scientist who died young. They would find it more understandable if they were to convert Olby’s reference to Crick and Watson’s ‘semi-covert’ use of Franklin’s data into simple English: the use, without her knowledge and consent, of her unpublished data and findings. Olby refers to the details of this sorry affair only obliquely, with a reference to Anne Sayre’s revisionist 1975 account of Franklin.

It may be true that, had she lived, Franklin would have gained worldwide renown for her work on virus structure and that ‘some of the myths about Franklin would have lost their lustre’ (whatever Olby may be implying here). But Olby leaves the most important questions unexplored. He writes that Watson ‘seemed oblivious to the ethical aspects’. The assertion, made when Franklin’s data were given to Watson and Crick, that she did not know how to interpret her own data defines a new low in ethical conduct. If we can criticise the police or the medical establishment when they close ranks we should hold ourselves to the same standard. Although Olby appears aware of these ethical questions, he has chosen not to address them but instead to provide multiple peripheral diversions: Franklin’s background, her social life and viewpoints and a long and inevitably unsuccessful attempt to explain the phase problem.

Barbara Low
Columbia University, New York


On War and Intervention

Michael Byers’s article on the laws of war (LRB, 20 February) brought to mind my experience during the first Gulf War. In March 1991, I was Chairman of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights. With two of my colleagues, I wrote to the press about the issue of enforcement of the Geneva Conventions in respect of the burial of the war dead. The actual number of Iraqi military casualties of that war has long been disputed. In particular, there was no figure for those killed in the famous ‘turkey shoot’ during the retreat from Kuwait, and those buried alive with them in the aftermath. In May 1991, the US Defense Agency estimated that 100,000 Iraqi troops had been killed. Other estimates have been much higher. In our letter we quoted Article 16 of the first 1949 Convention:

Parties to the conflict shall record as soon as possible, in respect of each wounded, sick or dead person of the adverse Party falling into their hands, any particulars which may assist in his identification …

‘Parties to the conflict,’ the same Article continues,

shall prepare and forward to each other through the same bureau certificates of death or duly authenticated lists of the dead. They shall likewise collect and forward through the same bureau one half of a double identity disk, last wills or other documents of importance to the next of kin, money, and in general all articles of an intrinsic or sentimental value, which are found on the dead. These articles, together with unidentified articles, shall be sent in sealed packets, accompanied by statements giving all particulars necessary for the identification of the deceased owners, as well as by a complete list of the contents of the parcel.

Article 17 insists that the dead be ‘honourably interred’ – if possible ‘according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged’. If these provisions are acceptable at the end of wars between Europeans, we asked, by what right are they modified when the victims live in West Asia? Were we to assume that the Geneva Conventions had been suspended by General Schwarzkopf? General Schwarzkopf has now moved on, but his successors are still repeating the old mantras. Spokesmen from both the British and American forces in Iraq have recently told us that they are ‘not in the business of body counts’.

Back in 1991 we were promptly informed by the office of the International Red Cross in Geneva that they had already sought to act on those provisions of the Geneva Conventions which we mentioned in our letter. Ten to fifteen days earlier they had asked the allied forces to supply all necessary information about casualties in Iraq and Kuwait. But by mid-March the ICRC had received no information from the allies about the numbers of dead soldiers who had been buried, and had not been told whether any efforts had been made to identify the corpses, or whether such efforts had been sufficient, within the terms of the Convention. The Iraqi Government, on the other hand, had already responded to the Commission’s enquiries concerning the numbers of allied deaths. For the US and Britain the upholding of the Geneva Conventions appears to be a one-way street.

Ken Coates
Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Matlock, Derbyshire


Hey Ho! The Pope Says No!

Following on the debate about the worldwide protests on 15 February (Letters, 3 April), I note that the anti-war demonstration in New York on 22 March was badly underreported in the media and wildly underestimated in its numbers: for more than four hours marchers flowed down a packed Broadway from Times Square to Washington Square, some forty blocks to the south. Lest your readers missed it altogether, or dare to think that New Yorkers have lost it – their political edge, their linguistic wit, whatever – I wanted to pass along some of the signs we saw on the way: How Did Our Oil Get under Their Sand?; Freedom Fries as Baghdad Burns; Embed This; Empty Warhead Found in White House; Bombing Iraq Is So Last Century; Mainstream White Guys for Peace (alternatively, and with some overlap, Couch Potatoes for Peace); Re-Elect Carter; USA out of NYC; and (a family favourite) Frodo, You Failed: Bush Got the Ring. At least we can say that the Pentagon is not the only group creatively mangling the language.

Hal Foster
New York

New York Wants Peace, the banners proclaimed. Not in NYC’s Name! There was a group of Raging Grannies & Their Daughters, and a flock of middle-aged gay men dressed as nuns. There was a young woman on stilts, with the green face and flowing robes of the Statue of Liberty. A man in a Bush mask clutched a globe with bloody fingers; 9/11 Survivor against the War, one sign read. Another: New York Remembers Its Own Shock & Awe. A small group of restaurant workers carried signs printed in Spanish and English: I Worked at the WTC, and I Say No to War.

Iraq Did Not Do 9/11, another sign said. Yet another: Get It Right, This Is Not War. This Is a Big Country Slaughtering a Tiny Country. And: When Saddam Invaded Kuwait, He too Said He Was ‘Liberating’ It. One woman carried a picture frame encased in transparent plastic: We See through the Lies. One of the lies is of course that, with the outbreak of war, protest has become ‘unpatriotic’. Demonstrators did their best to counter this: Pro Soldier, Anti War; I Do Support the Troops – Bring Them Home Now! Many carried banners saying Peace is Patriotic or Patriots for Peace. One young man draped himself in an American flag and gagged himself with a strip of duct-tape. Another carried a banner quoting Robert Byrd, the Democratic senator for West Virginia: Today I Weep for My Country. Ashamed to Be an American, one sign said. Another: My Leaders Embarrass Me and Terrorise the World.

Anti-Bush banners ranged from: And We Thought Bush Was Pro-Life to George, if I Say Your Dick Is Bigger than Saddam’s, Will You Call off the War? But most were along the lines of Drop Bush, Not Bombs! or Regime Change Begins at Home. One, with papier-mâché masks depicting Ashcroft, Cheney and the President, denounced them as Asses of Evil. Yet another carried a large photograph of the President, along with the statement: I Regret I Have but 250,000 Lives to Give for My Country.

The Statue of Liberty stalked down Broadway, wearing a sign that asked: Is My Visa up Yet? A group of young people carried a banner urging us to French Kiss for Freedom. The gay nuns wore white veils and glittery gold eye-shadow, with peace and star-signs scrawled around each eye. Hey Ho! The Pope Says No!, their banners read, and: What Part of ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ don’t You Understand? I gave them the thumbs-up as I passed, and one, seeing my own sign (Another Buddhist Lesbian for Peace), exclaimed, ‘Oh a dharma sister!’ and gave me a smacking kiss on each cheek. Just then a blizzard of brilliantly printed dollar-bills came down from the sky. They had been issued by The Untied States of Aggression, and each was worth One Deception.

Not everyone agreed with us. At the corner of Washington Square, a man stood on his own, holding up a brightly coloured poster: Voice of the New York Majority. We Support Our President & Troops and Protest the Protesters. The next day there was a pro-war rally at Times Square. It drew only a thousand people, but the media gave it lots of coverage. One man carried a picture of the twin towers burning, with the slogan: Kill or Be Killed.

Our march had been peaceful, all along its route. But less than half an hour after we arrived at the park, a confrontation took place between the police and some young protesters. Two mounted officers were knocked off their horses, eight policemen were pepper-sprayed, and several others injured; 91 demonstrators were arrested. It was a tawdry and unfitting end, for both sides.

Towards evening, children were chalking peace signs on the asphalt tiles. Discarded banners stood propped up against the fence. This Land Is Our Land, Their Land Is Their Land; If Bombs Were Smart, They Would Refuse to Fall; War Is Easy, Do the Hard Work of Peace.

Christian McEwen
Guilford, Vermont


Still Distinguished

Peter Campbell refers to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome as an institution now ‘remembered (if at all) because Cesi became Galileo’s … supporter’ (LRB, 20 March). In fact the Accademia is still a distinguished body of scholars, publishing several important literary and scientific journals. Founded in 1603, as Campbell notes, it is the oldest such institution in Europe (the Académie de France was founded in 1635, the Royal Society in 1660).

J. Elfenbein
Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire


Superflux

Jeremy Noel-Tod askes why Marlborough is misspelled in Geoffrey Hill’s poem Speech! Speech! (LRB, 6 March). ‘Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre’ was a French popular song referring with schadenfreude to rumours (exaggerated) of Marlborough’s death at the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709. Lady Marlborough’s page dressed in black brings her the bad news. The name was even spelled ‘Malbrouk’ in German versions. Hill may have been thinking of Goethe’s second Roman Elegy (1790) in which he refers to English tourists being hounded by this song, immensely popular in the Revolutionary period. He compares it with his own dislike of being asked about The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Phil Poole
London N19


Go to the Library!

In his review of David Seabrook’s All the Devils Are Here Iain Sinclair (LRB, 20 March) notes, with seeming approval, that Seabrook is scornful of ‘Colindale researchers and library hacks’. Leaving aside the point that I last came across Sinclair giving a talk in the British Library, it is of course true that nothing beats direct experience. And as an attempt to understand what that experience means nothing beats a visit to the library.

Keith Flett
London N17