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Whose sarin?

Jamie Allinson makes some false technical claims in his critique of Seymour Hersh (Letters, 8 May). What Hersh reports is entirely plausible, and consistent with facts that emerged from our more limited but irrefutable technical studies of the circumstances surrounding the nerve agent attack in Damascus on 21 August 2013. Our findings, which have become the basis for the ‘new’ arguments being made against Hersh by people like Allinson, and supposedly knowledgeable non-government organisations like Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, raise the most serious questions about whether the White House lied about technical intelligence associated with the attack.

Allinson is correct that the improvised rockets he calls Volcanoes each contained about fifty litres of sarin, but wrong in his claim that they were fired from a regime-held area ‘to the north’. These claims are not original, but repeat those of Eliot Higgins, a blogger who, although he has been widely quoted as an expert in the American mainstream media, has changed his facts every time new technical information has challenged his conclusion that the Syrian government must have been responsible for the sarin attack. In addition, the claims that Higgins makes that are correct are all derived from our findings, which have been transmitted to him in numerous exchanges.

Before we began reporting findings from our analyses, there were published reports estimating that the sarin load carried by the rockets was about five litres. We showed, from detailed engineering analyses of rocket debris, that the rockets contained as much as fifty litres. This finding was hailed by members of the US government and non-government organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, as proof that the Syrian government had executed the atrocity of 21 August. In a follow-up analysis, we found that it could not possibly have been the case that the deadly rockets were fired from Syrian government-controlled areas as far as ten kilometres away, as claimed by the US government and non-government organisations. We showed that the shape of the rockets resulted in extreme aerodynamic drag, limiting their range to about 2 to 2.5 kilometres. This finding was met with great resistance in the media.

We also analysed the impact debris from the single rocket for which data was available (there is no data for multiple rocket impacts despite Allinson’s claim). We showed that those who argued that the Syrian government had fired the rockets had incorrectly determined the direction of arrival as being from the northwest. We showed that the actual direction was from the north. This new technical insight quickly prompted a new ‘discovery’. There was a checkpoint to the north, close to the area controlled by Syrian government forces, from which the deadly short-range rockets could have been launched. However, if they had been fired from this location, the impact pattern of the rockets used in the attack would have required them to have a range well in excess of five kilometres – which we have shown cannot be the case.

We do not claim to know who was actually behind the attack of 21 August in Damascus. But we can say for sure that neither do the people who claim to have clear evidence that it was the Syrian government. The mainstream American media have done a disservice to the public by allowing politically motivated individuals, governments, and non-government organisations to misrepresent facts that clearly point to serious breaches of the truth by the White House.

Richard Lloyd; Ted Postol
Spokane, Washington; Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Forgetting is best

In her bleak and honest piece Jenny Diski says that the old are ‘very well aware’ of their failures when young (LRB, 8 May). And so the end of life is likely to be grim and disappointing. My father, in his mid-eighties, is one among the hundreds of thousands of Alzheimer’s sufferers in the UK. He’s not very well aware of much at all. I don’t want to make light of this – there will come a time when his life is not worth living – but it’s worth asking whether there is something to be said for some limited forms of memory loss. It is in large part through comparison with how things once were that how they are now can seem so dire.

Chris Belshaw
Blawith, Cumbria

Jenny Diski says that a ‘definitive non-sexual way of knowing you’re old is the moment when your doctor tells you that “you’ll have to learn to live with it,” or that whatever ails or pains you is “the result of wear and tear”’. My grandmother used to say that it’s when you know your eyes won’t get much worse. I’m sorry to report that, at least according to a card I received when my son was born: ‘You know you’re old when your friends start having babies on purpose.’

Angela Lee
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

He wore a mullet

An example of the eye for detail of the Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon, quoted by Michael Wood, comes from his series of lectures on Proust, available to download from the Collège de France website (LRB, 8 May). In one of these he points out that on Swann’s first appearance he is described as having his hair cut ‘à la Bressant’; this style, popularised by the 19th-century actor Jean-Baptiste Prosper Bressant, was en brosse in front and long behind. This means that Charles Swann, connoisseur of the arts and friend of princes, wore a mullet.

Mark Etherton
London W2

When a Corpse Is a Message

Álvaro Enrigue omits two key factors in his analysis of the situation in Mexico (LRB, 8 May). One is the increased trade and movement across borders facilitated by the free trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US. This has made the movement of drugs and other contraband easier, as well as encouraging the supply of sophisticated US weapons to the cartels. Money laundering is also easier thanks to the complex financial links between these nations.

The second factor is the decline of the Colombian cartels, which began with the elimination of Pablo Escobar and the disruption of his cartel in Medellín, but continued as the Colombian state, in close alliance with the US government, fought a long and costly war with the guerrillas who managed drug supplies, and with some elements of the drug cartels and their associated militias. Once the Colombian lines into the US had been disrupted, the Mexican cartels stepped in.

John Calderon
London E8

What’s the point of HS2?

Christian Wolmar gives £50 billion as the cost (with contingencies) of building HS2 and providing rolling-stock (LRB, 17 April). He doesn’t mention operating costs. In France, I read, the TGV network requires a continuing subsidy of more than 12 billion euros a year. What is the projected subsidy, I wonder, for HS2?

John Taylor
London SE16

Putin’s Counter-Revolution

James Meek concedes that the interim government in Ukraine isn’t quite what the protesters might have hoped for (LRB, 20 March). Its members aren’t all neo-Nazi thugs, but they aren’t incorruptible democratic angels either. Meek blames this on Putin’s land-grab, following which the interim government had to ally with anyone who would help them. So they sided with the oligarchs, to whom they have handed feudal dominion over areas like Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk. But Meek is rather putting the cart before the horse here. Were there really no problems with the interim government until Putin invaded?

Before the revolution, Ukraine was (perhaps grudgingly) respected as an independent and neutral state by both Europe and Russia, as per agreements made when the USSR was dismantled. Whether or not one takes the view that ‘the West’ precipitated the crisis, the cosying up of European politicians to the interim government must be seen as a breach of this neutrality. Similarly, the interim government’s reciprocal friendliness can only be seen as an anti-Russian, pro-European stance. The interim government claims to want power so that it can work to end corruption in Ukraine; it asserts that it is interested only in Ukraine’s independence. Perhaps some of its members are. But what is a supposedly pro-independence government doing aligning itself with a power – Europe – that wants to swallow it into a union? This is what Putin reasonably argues. Meek picks up on Russia’s expansionist interests, but dismisses out of hand Russia’s legitimate fears of European expansionism.

Carroll Macnamara
London W12

How many furry animals?

The Old Norse sirklanti may not denote Saracenland, as Tom Shippey has it, so much as the Slavonic-speaking lands with which Vikings were very familiar (LRB, 3 April). Evidence for this is the Russian word for forty, which is completely anomalous in the Russian numeral system. The word is sorok, which is the East Slavonic variant of sork/serk and, as one of my former students pointed out to me, almost certainly denotes the number of small furry animal skins demanded as tribute by the Vikings as they travelled along the Russian river system on their way to and from the Black Sea. Forty is probably the most convenient size of bundle that could be handled. Serk/sark survives in Scots with the meaning ‘shirt’ and this could originally have been a garment made from that quantity of skins.

Shippey also mentions ‘superior small-unit cohesion’. Philological evidence for this may be the term which has come into English as ‘Varangian’, the Russian varyag (the ‘ya’ denotes a lost nasal sound) from Old Swedish varingr, which Russian etymological dictionaries define as ‘men who have taken a vow’ (var in Old Swedish). The English name Waring must be of the same origin. It is highly likely that the vow was to do with crew solidarity and security of passage out and back. The necessary boat-portages would have been very difficult without a certain number of crew.

My third comment concerns the alarm of classical authors (mentioned by Shippey) at the Vikings’ wasteful habit of taking neither booty nor slaves. Certainly by the time of the legendary ‘calling of the Rus’ (862?) described in the Russian Primary Chronicle, a major concern of the Norsemen in Serkland was the taking of slaves, mostly females, to be traded. In Germanic and Romance languages the term ‘slave’ is derived from a version of slav. The Slavonic languages, naturally, have entirely different words for ‘slave’ based on the word for ‘work’ (rabota) and similar terms.

Andrew Jameson
Malvern, Worcestershire

The Invention of Italian

Marina Warner writes that in The Divine Comedy ‘almost everyone the poet meets speaks to him in his own Toscano, the Florentine version of Italian’ (LRB, 17 April). At that time Tuscan was just one of many versions of late Latin that had evolved in Italy, and ‘Italian’ had yet to be invented. In his Prose della volgar lingua (‘Writings in the Vernacular Tongue’) of 1525, the Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo successfully argued for the adoption of a standardised version of Tuscan, substantially based on the works of Dante and Boccaccio – on the written rather than the spoken word – and codified by Bembo himself, as the basis for a future language for the whole of Italy. Significantly, toscan and italian are used synonymously by speakers of venessian (Venetian), another regional language that evolved independently from late Latin, to refer to the national language.

Roderick Conway Morris

Elephants Sulking in Corners

Colin Kidd advocates correcting the ‘democratic deficit’ in our constitution by transforming the House of Lords into a ‘German-style Bundesrat, with a membership drawn from the governments of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom’ (LRB, 17 April). But the English ‘regions’, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have no elected governments, and show no signs of wanting them. Such regional institutions as exist lack the democratic legitimacy of the devolved bodies in the non-English parts of the UK. In consequence, a Bundesrat based on territory, as advocated by Kidd, would introduce the West Lothian question into the upper house: Scottish members would be able to vote on English laws but the English members would not be able to vote on Scottish laws on domestic matters, which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. A territorial upper house, therefore, far from helping to hold the UK together, as Kidd hopes, would probably add momentum to the centrifugal forces threatening to pull it apart.

The imbalance in the British constitution, to which Kidd draws attention, is an inevitable consequence of asymmetrical devolution resulting from the fact that England does not want devolution. The asymmetry disadvantages, not Scotland, as Kidd suggests, but England. It is the price England pays for keeping Scotland within the Union.

Vernon Bogdanor
King’s College London

In pointing out the supremacy of European constitutional law over British, Scots and English laws, Colin Kidd puts his finger on a sore point, for no country can be ‘independent’ while remaining in the European Union or, indeed, in Nato. Neither the SNP nor the other political parties likely to win enough votes to control future Scottish governments intends to leave either organisation. The essence of European and Atlantic co-operation is that countries pool their sovereignty for certain agreed purposes, as John Major understood very well when he negotiated the Maastricht Treaty in 1991-92.

That is why the question being put to us in Scotland on 18 September is a rather silly one. We should have been asked how much Home Rule we’d like if we don’t want outright ‘independence’. The majority answer would certainly have been ‘considerably more than we have at present’, in particular more control over taxation, energy policy and welfare. But David Cameron would not agree to the Scottish government’s request for ‘devo max’ to be an option on the ballot paper.

No one in the Yes campaign is suggesting we end the currency union, the customs union or the fiscal union, let alone the social union. What they propose is that we end an unsatisfactory parliamentary union that no longer serves Scotland’s best interests. The so-called ‘union of the crowns’ would continue (despite the fact that it never existed: what actually happened was that the King of Scots inherited the English crown, 104 years before the union of parliaments, and the crowns are still separate, though worn by the same distant relative of King James VI and I).

I am bemused by Kidd’s suggestion that Ukip and the ‘English nationalist wing of the Tory Party’ are Alex Salmond’s ‘unavowed southern cousins’. This seems unfair, and sounds like a smear. Unlike Ukip and the Tory Little Englanders, the SNP is not a xenophobic, right-wing party. It is pro-immigration, for example. There were certainly a few nutters among the Nat ranks in the 1930s, as Gavin Bowd reminded us in his recent book, Fascist Scotland, and there were some lingering nasties on the fringes into the 1980s, but they were shown the door a long time ago. The SNP is now a centre-left, social democratic party in the European mainstream. Indeed, many former Labour voters support the SNP because it at least tries to put Labour Party policy into practice, something that drives the Scottish Labour leadership into paroxysms of fury.

Kidd suggests that we reform the House of Lords so that it resembles the German Bundesrat and becomes an elected second chamber, with powers to revise controversial legislation and restrain the enthusiastic excesses of the English-dominated House of Commons. This is a very attractive proposition. However, if even people like me (an Anglo-Scots Labour supporter for 35 years until 2001 and a Labour parliamentary candidate three times over) are intending to vote Yes, then I fear this constitutional carrot may not be in time to save the union of parliaments to which David Cameron is so passionately, and so suddenly, devoted.

Jonathan Wills
Bressay, Shetland

Neal Ascherson maintains that the Treaty of Union died when Winnie Ewing said: ‘The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened’ (Letters, 8 May). In the event of a Yes vote in the referendum this September, any legislation ratifying Scottish secession will necessarily contain provisions referring to and nullifying the 1707 Treaty of Union. And, contra Ewing, the Parliament meeting in Holyrood now has no continuity with the nobility-dominated legislature which met further up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in the 18th century. The 1998 Scotland Act makes this clear in its opening line: ‘There shall be a Scottish Parliament.’ This is a new body, not a reassembled one, and it was set up by the UK Parliament, not a sovereign body in its own right. What Ascherson’s citing of Winnie Ewing really tells us is not that the Treaty of Union is dead, more that Scotland is failing to disprove Ernest Renan’s observation that ‘historical error is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.’

Stephen Low


I mistakenly wrote, about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘Moonrise’, that it had ‘feminine rhymes’ (LRB, 3 April). I meant to say that it had feminine line-endings; it is unrhymed.

Helen Vendler
Harvard University