‘Atrocity museums,’ Jeremy Harding writes (LRB, 6 March), ‘run the risk of becoming’ merely recreational attractions. Earlier in the piece he gives as an example the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes in Cambodia. I was in Cambodia last summer during my gap year, and as a Western youth in Phnom Penh was beset with offers to take the town’s most popular tour for my demographic. This typically begins with the Tuol Sleng Museum and ends up, via the Killing Fields, at an unspecified location where tourists are offered the opportunity to enact their own massacres in miniature, pulping live animals with automatic weapons. US dollar prices were, as a rule, tied to the market value of the livestock to be obliterated, but there were rumours in my hostel that two young Americans had paid $500 to fire a rocket-launcher at a cow. In any event, the Shooting Range, as it was called, comes as the climax to a full day of touring atrocity memorials. After seeing one towering stack of skulls after another, what could be more cathartic than a bout of death-dealing of your own? For some, remembering genocide is a means of psyching up for more murder.
A Bigger Shoah
Yonatan Mendel suggests that the realities of the Occupation are concealed in Israeli press accounts by the euphemisms and subterfuges that characterise ‘military discourse’ (LRB, 6 March). But those realities – and even more disturbing potential scenarios – are laid bare by that discourse when it’s spoken by politicians and army officers with fewer inhibitions. While Israeli journalists avoid the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘racism’ for fear of insulting the army (or offending their readers’ sensibilities), Effi Eitam, a right-wing member of the Knesset who served as Sharon’s minister of housing, recently told a group of Arab lawmakers: ‘one day we will expel you from this house, and from the national home of the Jewish people.’ While Israeli journalists speak blandly of ‘clearing’ areas being used by militants, an Israeli officer recommended that soldiers invading Nablus study the German army’s methods in the Warsaw ghetto. During the most recent siege of Gaza, Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, declared that if Palestinians continue to fire Qassam rockets into Israel they ‘will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah’. The Israeli government issued a ‘clarification’ to the effect that Vilnai did not mean ‘genocide’, just a disaster: in this case, more than one hundred Palestinians killed, many of them civilians, in revenge for the killing of an Israeli in the town of Sderot. Any measure can be justified in the name of the Shoah – even, it seems, another shoah.
Yonatan Mendel is, of course, right in pointing to the way words can be used to obscure unpalatable truths, especially in wartime. However, anyone familiar with Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’, knows that this is not the prerogative of Israeli journalists.
Unfair to Uribe (again)
There is a dizzying gap between the rosy picture of Alvaro Uribe’s administration painted by Malcolm Deas and the events of the past eighteen months in Colombia (Letters, 21 February). Colombian magistrates have uncovered evidence of intimate collaboration between right-wing death squads and officials at the highest levels of the Colombian state. Jorge Noguera, the head of Colombia’s intelligence services, was arrested last February and charged with compiling lists of trade-union members (complete with their security arrangements) to be passed on to the death squads. Noguera was a close ally of Uribe: he ran Uribe’s election campaign in the Magdalena province in 2002 and was appointed by him as intelligence chief. Four hundred trade unionists have been murdered since Uribe took office, with the vast majority of cases remaining unsolved. Uribe’s foreign minister was also forced to resign last year after her brother, a senator, was arrested on suspicion of paramilitary links.
Deas is rather coy when discussing the rhetoric of Colombia’s president, asserting that ‘Uribe is not alone in calling the guerrillas terrorists,’ without acknowledging the sinister generosity with which he doles out that label: Uribe once referred to human rights NGOs as ‘political adventurers ultimately in the service of terrorism’. This is more than a case of verbal excess: in Colombia, that kind of talk is the equivalent of pinning a target to someone’s back.
Claims that Uribe enjoys an approval rating of 80 per cent have been made repeatedly since he first came to power. The presidential elections of 2006 offer a more reliable barometer. While he was re-elected comfortably, 55 per cent of the electorate abstained. The supposedly demobilised paramilitaries made clear where their sympathies lay on the eve of the poll: ‘We are ready to fight to the death for the continuity of the presidential period of our legitimate leader. We will not permit a different result. If, on Sunday, the yellow shirts are in the majority, we will take care to dye them a different colour: blood red! This is our declaration of total war. All who do not accept the legitimacy of El Señor Presidente Alvaro Uribe Velez will be our next military target.’
I was saddened and surprised to see that Malcolm Deas has become a supporter of the Uribe regime in Colombia. Deas claims that I criticise Uribe for not respecting the rights of guerrillas such as the FARC. However, I simply noted that Uribe had branded the guerrillas terrorists; I rebuked Uribe’s administration for their treatment not of the guerrillas, but of civilians. I argued that Uribe’s administration equates the guerrillas with civilian bystanders, who bear the brunt of the violence. But Deas follows the administration’s ‘logic’: you are either with us or against us, and neutrality is proof of guilt. This produces a situation in which union activists and indigenous leaders accused of sympathising with the guerrillas are gunned down by paramilitaries.
Deas concentrates on defending the current Colombian administration against the claim that Uribe has ties to drug traffickers. However, the much more important claim, which he cannot reject, is that the Uribe government has close ties to the murderous paramilitaries. Deas airily derides a US intelligence report as unreliable – he doesn’t bother to explain why – and makes it seem as if I had referred to Uribe as Escobar’s ‘close personal friend’ when, in fact, those words are from the intelligence report. I am curious to know what excuse Deas would make for the growing number of congressmen allied with Uribe, including his cousin, who have been arrested or removed from office because of their ties to the paramilitaries.
Finally, Deas favourably compares Uribe’s repressive plan for ‘democratic security’ with those implemented by the brutal dictatorships during Argentina and Guatemala’s dirty wars. That sets a low standard for comparison. Even Uribe’s sternest critics wouldn’t compare the Colombian regime with that of the genocidal generals in Guatemala. It is precisely because we do remember ‘what happened there’ – the murder of thousands – that I and others of the ‘bien pensant left’ caution against Uribe’s ‘democratic security’; we have seen this play before and know where it ends.
Utah State University
Who do you speak for?
No doubt Pankaj Mishra is correct when he states that England’s Australian allies at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 wished to maintain the White Australia policy (LRB, 21 February). But it’s doubtful that Woodrow Wilson ‘feared alienating’ them. When Australia’s prime minister, the feisty William Morris (Billy) Hughes, opposed the transfer of German Pacific territories to Japanese control, Wilson derided his argument, asking who was this little man from a country no one had ever heard of with a population less than that of New York City. Australia had suffered the highest battle casualties per capita of any of the combatant nations. ‘Mr President, I speak for sixty thousand war dead,’ Hughes responded. ‘How many do you speak for?’
Palm Beach, Queensland
Bernard Porter writes that Washington was ‘surrendered without a fight’ when the British invaded the area in 1814 (LRB, 21 February). This is untrue. About six thousand Americans, mainly local militia, attempted to stop the advance of the much larger British force on 24 August at Bladensburg, just north-east of the capital. They were, however, no match for the British and the battle was over in minutes.
One might also quarrel with Porter’s use of the word ‘sack’ for what happened next. The victors marched on Washington and burned its public buildings, but left most of the city’s residential areas undisturbed.
Bernard Porter writes of the War of 1812: ‘Only the Canadians seem to have got the right angle on it. It was their war for colonial freedom.’ And only the Canadians seem to have any kind of strong feelings about it. On a visit to Canada last year, my wife and I were lectured by a Niagaran on ‘the Americans and their crazy wars’ – by which, we learned, he meant, not Iraq and Vietnam, but 1812.
Schumann’s enigmatic ‘AE♭CB’, about which Paul Driver wrote (LRB, 21 February), needs decoding if it’s to make any sense. The problem arises from the differences between English and German musical note-names, particularly those of sharps and flats. A is A in both languages, E flat in German is Es; C is C in both, while English B is H in German. (The German B is the same as the English B flat.) Strung together, these give A-(e)S-C-H, indicating Asch, a small town in Bohemia now called As, where Schumann’s early love, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. It doesn’t get any less involved: A flat is As in German, leading to an alternative spelling and note-sequence As-C-H.
Schumann saw hidden messages in these letters, not only because they occurred in his full name (Robert Alexander SCHumAnn), thus providing a fortuitous if tenuous link with his beloved, but also because they could be realised musically. Carnaval, the work of which this is a part, abounds with musical tags, themes and allusions based on the sequences A-(e)S-C-H (in English, A-E flat-C-B) and As-C-H (A flat-C-B). They give an unexpected unity to a mixter-maxter of some 21 miniatures, a sort of harlequinade portraying real and imaginary people and situations, in which Ernestine von Fricken masquerades as ‘Estrella’, an agreeably bouncy 17-year-old if Schumann’s musical account of her is to be trusted.
It’s unlikely that Schumann regarded these tarradiddles as more than a sophisticated chat-up technique. He’d used the idea once already, probably as a calculated novelty, to launch his Opus 1, the bravura A-B-E-G-G variations, dedicated to Pauline, Countess Abegg, a fanciful person not known to the Almanach de Gotha. He grew out of this practice after Carnaval, reverting only in mid-career to compose a set of six organ fugues on the notes B-A-C-H, not the first nor the last composer to pay homage in this way.
Adam Shatz says Donald Rumsfeld estimated the war would cost $50-60 million (LRB, 6 March). Rumsfeld actually estimated that the total cost would reach $50-60 billion – only slightly less ridiculous.