It is a great pity that Edward Said tarnishes his excellent article about the criminal folly of Desert Storm (LRB, 7 March) by mentioning the unsustainable claim that the gassing of the Kurdish civilian population of Halabjah in March 1988, in which some five to six thousand people died, was an Iranian rather than an Iraqi atrocity. This piece of disinformation was propagated by the Pentagon at a time when the US was massively supporting Iraq in its war with Iran, a policy continued, as Said points out, until 2 August last year, and reflected, as I write, in the current paradoxical US attempts to preserve Saddam Hussein against the less palatable alternative forces fighting against him in Basra and Kurdistan.
I had the opportunity, in the aftermath of Halabjah, to interview a number of the Kurdish survivors, who had been flown by the Iranians to London for treatment. Their accounts of what had taken place were clear and consistent: the chemical weapons had been delivered by Iraqi Sukhoi 22 fighter-bombers. The survivors I saw were all extensively burned by mustard gas, for which the Iraqis had a production plant at Samara. The same plant manufactured the nerve gas which was almost certainly responsible for most of the deaths at Halabjah. The US defence analysts who disputed this did so on the extraordinary and unsustainable grounds that the Halabjah deaths were caused by blood gases (cyanide) and that Iraq did not possess such weapons. Their version of events is refuted not only by my own observations but by the UN investigators, by the UK pathologist who saw victims in Tehran not long after the gassing occurred, and by the team from the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights who interviewed Kurdish refugees in eastern Turkey.
Halabjah represented a turning-point in the history of warfare as significant as Hiroshima. It was the first time that chemical weapons had been used on such a scale against a defenceless population and the first time that nerve gas had ever been used. It was a clear breach of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on chemical and biological weapons (to which Iraq had been one of the early signatories). That Iraq was allowed by its Western backers to get away with such an atrocity has undoubtedly compromised subsequent attempts to demilitarise in the Middle East or to negotiate an effective new chemical weapons treaty at Geneva. That Iraq’s chemical weapons capability was provided by Western European technical support, and that the US turned a blind eye to its use, contributes one more twist to the spiral of disaster which led the world into Desert Storm and which that savage campaign has merely added to. But in condemning Western imperialist goals in that war, there is no need to try to wash the bloody stains from the Iraqi dictator’s record.
Open University, Milton Keynes
Like Neil Belton (Letters, 7 March), I am opposed to the war in the Gulf and ‘living without benefit of party’. Unlike him, I don’t think that opposition to the war is consistent with supporting UN sanctions. This position, which shades very quickly into support for the war pure and simple (viz. Fred Halliday’s trahison in the Guardian), has been looking rather threadbare ever since the UN Security Council authorised the use of force to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait. From that point on, even the most hopeful internationalist would have to have recognised that there was no distinction between UN pronouncements and US policy, the latter hell-bent on the destruction of Iraq, as Edward Said rightly observes in the same issue in which Belton’s letter appeared. Regrettably, there are only two sides in this ugly war: support or opposition. Belton’s attempt to fine-tune the latter remains entirely unconvincing, particularly now as the US and its allies sit idly by while civil war rages over large sectors of Iraq.
A couple of other points. Does Belton really believe that ‘Kuwait was, among Arab states, relatively liberal and tolerant’? Tell it to the Yemenis and Palestinians who lived and worked there, producing the surplus on which the upper classes feasted. And while it is obviously true that ‘Saddam was not a creation of Western imperialism’ – any more than Margaret Thatcher was a creation of the ‘special relationship’ – it is nevertheless fair to say that consistent Western support through the Eighties helped shore up the Baath regime, particularly during the war with Iran. Hence, it is equally correct to conclude that if the Iraqi regime was and is murderous, antidemocratic, and sufficiently well-armed to sustain itself against any foreseeable domestic opposition, responsibility for this state of affairs lies squarely on Western – primarily British and American – shoulders.
It may seem ungracious to criticise a book review which is as informative and vividly personal as Jane Miller’s piece on Volume One of George Gissing’s Collected Letters (LRB, 7 March), and in which my work is referred to appreciatively, but several statements in it are so biased as to invite contradiction. For one thing, Mrs Miller, who does not like Gissing’s novels and does her best to discourage potential readers from turning to them, mildly complains that this first of nine scheduled volumes does not tell us enough about his Manchester days. There is a misconception here. Can the editors be blamed if most of Gissing’s early letters have not survived? A collection of letters is not a biography, and no artificial attempt has been made to repeat in footnotes information on his student days which can easily be found elsewhere. William Gissing is known to have destroyed nearly all George’s letters, and George himself, before William’s death, complained about this. The editors’ responsibility is in no way involved. Similarly the notion that Gissing the man can be more profitably approached through his novels than through his correspondence rests on imperfect knowledge of both: it is misleading to say that aspects of his first marriage ‘are reworked again and again in the novels’. Jane Miller would find it difficult to give other examples than Workers in the Dawn and The Unclassed. Nor is the view that the various volumes of Gissing’s correspondence published since 1961 tell us enough about him based on anything but prejudice and a determination to play down the significance of a project which is central to Gissing studies. We shall be publishing over 2400 letters, to say nothing of important and hitherto unknown letters from Henry James, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and other literary figures of the period, and we shall give Jane Miller some fine opportunities to revise her arbitrary judgment. Again her complaint that Gissing’s first marriage is ‘not much discussed here’ reveals hasty reading and lofty disregard of chronology. She will find considerably more information on the subject in the proper place – that is, Volume Two. Gissing, it will be seen here, did not deposit his wife at the Misses Waskett’s in Battersea in 1881.
Even the account of the relationship between Gissing and her great-aunt Clara Collet, although quite sound in the main, calls for qualification. The reason why Clara’s letters to Gissing will not be available is not, as is implied in Jane Miller’s review, that he did not keep them, but that when Gabrielle Fleury returned them to their writer after Gissing’s death, Clara herself apparently did not think they were worth preserving. Besides, if it is true that she contributed, with splendid generosity, to the upkeep of Gissing’s second wife, Edith, in a lunatic asylum after 1903 (I have receipts of her cheques from Whale and Wates in my own archive), and helped Gissing’s relatives to take care of his two boys after his death, no evidence has yet reached me that she gave money to educate his sons in his lifetime. And, unless weeks were much longer in Victorian times than in our own Nineties, Gissing certainly did not write to her ‘about once a week’. With the exception of the few (earliest) letters that she received from him – as late as 1916 she wrote that she had not destroyed these – and of the batch of 1898-99 which she is known to have suppressed, all his letters to her have survived, and there are 165 of them, not to speak of those from Gabrielle Fleury which we shall also be printing.
As for the condescending question ‘Are Gissing’s novels needed now?’, the answer is an emphatic yes. They were all in print for about a decade until recently, and it is to be hoped that many more reprints will appear before the centenary of his death. His work, from his youthful poems and stories to his unfinished historical romance Veranilda, offers impressive evidence of his quite exceptional talent. It can be unreservedly recommended – pace the shade of Raymond Williams – even to students whose emotional health is solicitously considered by ‘tactful and tolerant’ supervisors. In the last thirty years I have known hundreds of Gissing readers, in the West as well as in the East, who throve and are still thriving on him. They would pooh-pooh the ready-made notion that he and his works are depressing. In the autumn of life, I am prepared to swear that Gissing is an author for all seasons.
University of Lille
Jane Miller writes: Professor Coustillas has devoted much of his life to George Gissing’s work, and he admires the novels more than I am able to do. I am obliged to him for the points he makes about the first volume of the letters and about Gissing’s friendship with Clara Collet.
Alan Sinfield (Letters, 7 March) insists that value is always culturally specific, related to a particular context. This implies an extreme degree of ethical relativism; we, here and now, may find torture, for instance, repugnant to our idea of how human beings ought to be treated, whilst recognising that in other times and places other ideas and practices have been, and are, common. On Sinfield’s formulation we have no right to make a ‘universalist’ condemnation of torture, in whatever situation it occurs. It seems to contradict the Marxist belief expressed in his Shakespeare criticism that the struggle against oppression is a constant in history, irrespective of different societies and cultures.
I am preparing a full-scale study of Leavis’s life, times and works and would very much like to hear from anyone interested in contributing recollections or documents. I have been in touch with some of your correspondents, who have been extremely helpful. In the next three months I plan to contact, where possible, all Leavis’s college pupils and other students. I want to build up a picture of Leavis’s actual curriculum (in the widest sense), to contrast this with what he is supposed to have believed, The Life of F.R. Leavis will be published by Viking-Penguin in 1994.
Department of English Literature,
I read a pastiche from an Arctic land
That conjured Uncle Wiz from the dim distance
When poets swapped Lawn Tennyson for abandoned
mineshafts, pen and ink for flange and pistons.
I liked the lines; and certainly our Wystan’s
Verbal contraptions have worse flattery suffered
From francs-tireurs less frank than Francis Spufford.
But (echoing Robert Post upon Post-Modernism?)
He sends his letter to a man of letters
Reposted in the night mail of post-Audenism
From male in ’36, with all his tetters,
To next year’s unsexed text. Onlie begetters
End up – dear W.H.! – frustrate and vexed,
No body but a corpus’s pre-text.
The truth is, after Spain, his summer holiday
Went west, young man, in 1937,
Preferring to explore the safe Lunn Poly way
The crooks and nannies of eccentric Devon
With Uncle Dick, Tom Driberg and Nye Bevan,
In which, according to the Auden Annual,
His constant consort was a cocker spaniel.
Post-Modernists of course will argue time
Can move in ways the bourgeois find unnerving,
But Baudrillard himself might balk at rhyme
Dictating such anachronistic swerving
From fact to fiction as at least deserving
A magisterial sniff from Christopher Ricks:
‘Auden in Iceland: 1936’.
No patronymic mine to conjure with,
I sign myself,
Yours truly, Stanley Smith
P.S. Your correspondent rhymed ‘rely on’ with ‘Byron’. Actually, it rhymes with ‘Bion’.