I was recently pressed to go to Iraq by Riad El Taher, a British national but from a Basra family. El Taher, with the acquiescence of Tariq Aziz, also invited my friend and Parliamentary colleague, George Galloway, a former director of War on Want, and Tim Llewellyn, for a quarter of a century the not-in-the-least-naive Middle East correspondent of the BBC. We went for nine days and paid our own air fare to Amman. I paid another £300 so that I could not be accused of going on a freebie. We were given some hospitality, and the use of government cars.
In putting forward a view of Iraq, and of UN sanctions, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the West, I have to make it clear that I do not feel beholden to the regime of Saddam Hussein, although I believe that that regime has the strong support of the Iraqi people, as of May 1993, at any rate south of Baghdad.
Sanctions are having the reverse effect of what was intended: far from bringing down Saddam Hussein, they are fostering a real loathing of the British and the Americans (particularly the British, as the Iraqis feel that with our relations with the Arab world, we should know better). It is not surprising.
Never in my life have I witnessed babies expiring before my very eyes, their wretched stomachs and private parts swollen with the diseases associated with malnutrition, lack of milk and the absence of simple pharmaceutical products. The figures – given to us in the 3700-bed Saddam Medical City in Baghdad, in 1990 the finest modern medical complex in the Middle East – tell the story. Kwashiorkor up 29 times, marasmus up 24 times, para-typhoid up six times and rising, infant mortality up 11 times. Since these figures and a host more are confirmed by the Canadian epidemiologist Dr Eric Hoskins, who was commissioned to do a report for Unicef, I see no reason to challenge them. Moreover, diseases are reappearing where there were no diseases for decades. Malaria had been eradicated and has returned in virulent form. Dysentery is rampant. Possibly most serious of all, cholera is abroad in drug-resistant form – not that there are many drugs available. At Um Kasr hospital on the Kuwait border I saw the first cases of rickets, a disease I have not observed since Glasgow in the Fifties.
As if this list were not sufficient, the doctors pointed out that materials for diagnosis such as the radio-nuclides on which younger doctors were trained have simply been banned by the Sanctions Committee, since they could be used for military purposes. As Dr Mubarak, the Health Minister, put it, his generation had to think with their heads and use their hands, but younger doctors were trained to rely on the sophisticated equipment imported from the West, and deprived of such modern techniques, they find diagnosis all the harder.
The crowning example of absurdity came when we discovered that the Sanctions Committee of the UN had forbidden the import of special paraplegic and paediatric chairs, on the grounds that the aluminium they contained could be used for making the wings of military aircraft. And, of course, the nitrous oxide required for caesarian operations was simply out of the question.
Bluntly, I believe the UN has been manipulated by the Americans and British into wrongly harsh resolutions against Iraq. Are we not seriously flouting the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 November 1989? Over a hundred thousand children in excess of the average have died since the beginning of the Gulf War. Many of these child deaths have been the result of diarrhoeal disease caused by contaminated water supplies. Yet the nylon filters necessary for improving water quality are banned by the Sanctions Committee on grounds of their potential military use. The same wicked restrictions apply to other crucial water-purification components.
There has been a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio, diphtheria and measles. Yet, health services can barely function as a result of shortages of supplies and equipment. We were shown the virtually empty shelves of the stores and pharmacies at two separate hospitals. Medicines, including antibiotics and anaesthetics, are in desperately short supply.
When I saw Douglas Hurd on my return, he expressed disbelief, and said that medicines were exempt from sanctions. The fact is that neither Saddam Hussein’s government, nor, in my view, any conceivable government of Iraq could possibly accept the UN conditions. The first and overwhelming call on funds from unfrozen assets goes to reparations for Kuwait. Little is left, it seems to Iraqis, for them, and what is left is partly swallowed up in paying the UN’s administrative costs. As George Galloway put it, ‘We expect them to pay their own gaoler.’
In the course of our long discussion with Tariq Aziz, I said: ‘Since you are a Chaldean Christian, and confession in the Christian Church is good for the soul, I’d better say my father served on the staff of Sir Percy Cox.’ Both of us laughed, knowing that Cox was the pro-consul who drew the line in the sand that set up Kuwait. Indeed, my opposition to military action in 1990 was partly based on my possession of Philip Craven’s Life of Sir Percy Cox and a detailed knowledge of how Kuwait was hived off from Ottoman Iraq.
At Tim Llewellyn’s insistence we went to Um Kasr, fifty miles from Basra. With the acquiescence of a South American and an African UN officer, we went unannounced to the houses of people in Um Kasr, now in Kuwait. Every man and woman who came to their gate said with some vehemence: ‘We are Iraqis.’ The expansion of the Al-Sabah state of Kuwait was not the reason why the men and women of the British forces were asked to risk their lives in 1990.
House of Commons, SW1
Having been described in the former Yugoslav press as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ and ‘supporter of Albanian separatism’, by Croat chauvinists as ‘pro-Chetnik’, ‘Yugo-nostalgic’ and a ‘rotten left-wing feminist’, to be called, as Andrew Coates (Letters, 27 May) calls me, a ‘virulent pro-Croatian nationalist’ simply rounds off the list. Those who wish to know what my views really are can, of course, read my book, Destruction of Yugoslavia – which includes two articles that first appeared in the London Review of Books.
Let me say for the record that I have never compared the Serbian regime to that of Pol Pot – though evidently they do have certain common features. Nor have I described Serbia as ‘intrinsically evil’ (though its regime could no doubt be described thus), partly because I do not subscribe to the notion of collective guilt and partly because I am very well aware that Serbs are also victims of this war. (This does not, of course, mean that Serb – and non-Serb – war criminals should not be punished.) In the letter to the Guardian to which Coates refers, which I co-signed with members of Action for Bosnia (some of whom are Serbs), we called for the lifting of the arms embargo and endorsed military action in support of Bosnian sovereignty and against Serbia’s war machine in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for reasons that were specified and which, moreover, are shared by the multi-national government of that country. Indeed, we insisted that ‘capitulation to the forces of aggression would mortgage any democratic future for Serbia itself.’ This is the view of all Serbian democrats – who, incidentally, have not shirked from comparing Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein and describing his regime as ‘national-socialist’, denouncing Dobrica Cosic as the chief ideologue of the Serbian war, naming Radovan Karadjic as ‘the murderer of Sarajevo’, or defining what the three have done collectively as a ‘historic defeat of Serbia’. Finally, I have never belonged to an ‘International Group’, nor to my knowledge does any such organisation exist.
Writing in the LRB, I stressed how ‘the Serbs – pushed into the role of aggressors – are, of course, victims of [Milosevic’s] policy equally with the rest. In Serbia, as in other parts of Yugoslavia, right-wing nationalism threatens the home nation as much as it does the alleged national enemy.’ I also paid tribute to ‘the courage of the few [in Serbia] who, despite physical attacks and constant threat to their lives, continue to oppose the war’ and to ‘the tens of thousands of young Serbs who rallied against Milosevic in March of this year  and who form the lifeblood of the anti-war movement’. I saw them – then as now – as ‘proof that Serbia’s democratic tradition is by no means exhausted’. What separates me from people like Coates is the refusal to reduce Serbia and the Serbs to the political project represented by Milosevic, Cosic, Karadjic and Mladic. If this amounts to ‘virulent pro-Croatian nationalism’, then so be it.
I have been thinking about Miranda Seymour’s interesting letter (Letters, 27 May), and agree with her that there can be no general rule. How biographers name their subjects is up to them; all I would suggest is that they should, in making their choices, question themselves as to the reasons for their preference, as, so she implies, Michael Holroyd did in calling Strachey ‘Lytton’; and Shaw ‘Shaw’. I don’t quite see why ‘Strachey’ wouldn’t have worked just as well as ‘Lytton’, but it hardly matters since the result wasn’t mush.
One possible rule of thumb: Forster was known to the world as ‘E.M. Forster’, and ‘Morgan’ was reserved for intimates; Robert Graves was known to the world as ‘Robert Graves’, and Strachey as ‘Lytton Strachey’. So ‘Morgan’ and a fortiori ‘Morgie’ are unlike the others in that they make claims to an unjustified and incapacitating intimacy, claims that, in my view, are all too copiously insisted upon in the biography. Ms Seymour apparently feels ‘Simone’ for ‘de Beauvoir’ and ‘Susan’ for ‘Sontag’ would be equally embarrassing indications of what might be expected from the books in which they occur.
This also suggests that gender is not an issue, or at least not the main issue. However, I notice that N. John Hall and Richard Mullen, two recent and excellent male biographers of Trollope, call the novelist by his surname throughout. There is a limit to the number of biographies of Trollope one can be expected to read, so I cannot guess why Victoria Glendinning chose to call him by his Christian name. Anyway, I agree that we haven’t got to the bottom of this problem, which, with so much biography about, we ought perhaps to get to the bottom of.
With reference to Nicola Beauman’s letter (Letters, 10 June): I can’t think what can have possessed Francis King, usually a sensible man, to say (if he really did so) that I was ‘deliberately equivocal’ in my biography of E.M. Forster over Forster’s relationship with his friend Bob Buckingham.
Like Nixon himself, R.W. Johnson’s review of Nixon: A Life (LRB, 13 May) raises doubt and alarm. Because Nixon rose ‘from the bottom of the social heap’ and, claims Johnson, worked harder and read more than other incumbents, he was ‘in many ways the most impressive of America’s post-war Presidents’. Yet Nixon’s fractured personality (‘he has never known who he is’) rendered him ‘not fit for public office’.
Johnson is not always meticulous with Aitken’s text. Nixon, electioneering in 1952 when McCarthyism was at its height, called Truman, Acheson and Stevenson not traitors but ‘traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation’s Democrats believe’. In 1947, John Kennedy gave Nixon the telephone numbers, not of tarts, but of ‘three suitable young ladies, one of which was the number of his sister’ as possible social contacts when the Herter Committee visited Paris. On Nixon’s and Kennedy’s rivalry in the 1960 Presidential election, Johnson is misleading: ‘JFK’s famous dismissal of Nixon (“no class") stuck at the time, but Nixon’s view of JFK as a spoiled Harvard womaniser is now more widely shared.’ Kennedy’s private remark was prompted by Nixon’s changing from gallant, likely loser (on TV: ‘If he does become our next President, he will have my wholehearted support’) to delegating to his press spokesman the culminating moment of conceding the election. Thus, though he conceded by telegram, he failed to thank his nationwide army of workers and signal an end to division. Kennedy’s ‘famous dismissal’ never leaked. It was first published over five years later in Pierre Salinger’s With Kennedy.
‘A spoiled Harvard womaniser’ can surmount illness and have huge voter-appeal. Johnson interpolates a caricature fostered by recent scandal-embroidering biographers. By focusing almost exclusively on the dubious count in Illinois and Texas, Aitken, Stephen Ambrose and virtually all other biographers infer that Nixon was robbed of the 1960 election. He showed statesmanship in declining to contest the result. ‘Nixon behaved well … refusing to ask for a recount,’ says Johnson. But Nixon admits to Aitken that his campaign chairman tried to buy votes – ‘The party had been doing it for years.’ Kennedy’s slight eve-of-election lead put pressure on the Republicans. Their vote-rigging in rural, downstate Illinois is alleged. In the Washington Post of 4 January 1961, Drew Pearson charged that Hoffa’s Teamsters’ Union and Mafia money were vital in ‘switching Ohio, considered safe for Kennedy, into the Nixon column’: of all states, Ohio (26 electoral votes) registered the largest swing by far between eve-of-election poll and result. The matter may have been most fairly put by Theodore White in Breach of Faith: the electoral outcome of ‘counterfeiting across the nation … rested on whether the Democratic crooks or the Republican crooks were the more skilful.’
State recounts, where permitted by law, take an inordinate length of time; legislatures have to be recalled etc. There was only one, in Hawaii, and it took seven weeks; Nixon’s four electoral votes went to Kennedy. Nixon alluded to the minefield when he wrote in his Memoirs: ‘And what if I demanded a recount and it turned out that despite the vote fraud Kennedy had still won? Charges of “sore loser" would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.’
Johnson repeatedly queries Aitken’s ability to understand, but the same can be levelled at him with regard to the American Right. The obverse side of the Right’s ‘naked opportunism’ was a genuinely-held fear that New Dealism, British socialism (much cited in the late Forties) and Mao Zedong’s victory in 1949 heralded eventual engulfment by Communism. Nixon’s ‘persecution of Alger Hiss’ occurred before McCarthy discovered the electoral value of Communism. It is problematic to say that ‘Nixon rode the wave of McCarthyism.’ From the start (1950), Nixon advised McCarthy not to use the witchhunting techniques that in late 1954 were to bring McCarthy down. In his March 1954 speech, Nixon topped and tailed his ‘shooting rats’ metaphor (rightly deplored by Johnson) by insisting that procedures against alleged Communists ‘must be fair and they must be proper … So we have to be fair.’ Johnson omits both quotes.
Perhaps most alarming is Johnson’s failure to understand the Alger Hiss case. He commends age-old conspiracy theories that are repeated in ‘recent biographies of J. Edgar Hoover’. If Hiss had been straightforward in answering queries about his alleged links with Communists in the Thirties and much else, he would not have been convicted of perjury. His own documents experts agreed that the copies of classified papers taken from and returned to the State Department had identical typescript to that in personal letters typed earlier on the Hisses’ typewriter. Long-hand notes of stolen papers, they agreed, were in Hiss’s hand. It is not possible to replicate the typescript of one machine by making another – Hiss’s defence counsel employed a ‘forger’ who tried for over a year and failed. Anyway, it was Hiss’s brother, not the FBI, who traced the long-discarded typewriter. ‘Several of Hiss’s own documents experts, after examining samples of Chambers’s typing, agreed that he could not have typed [the copies]’: Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978). Professor Weinstein had embarked on his five-year study of the case in the belief that Hiss was innocent. The evidence, which included thousands of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, forced him to change his mind.
It’s terribly terribly nice to be left-wing, isn’t it, Sylvia Lawson (LRB, 8 April), but other Aussies are also reading the LRB and they might point out that the real architect of the Tory Goods and Services Tax was your hero Paul Keating himself, who tried to introduce it in 1985 but his mates would not let him and who now wants to slip it in again. Though they might call themselves Labour it was really the Labour right-wing Tories who got through the election with a promise of eight billion dollars in tax cuts to the rich and nothing for those earning under $20,000. Your party sold off our media to the murderous media barons and the ‘resounding’ defeat was 50-plus all right, but the plus was only 1 per cent. As for women giving Labour the victory, I’m sorry but your own party’s polling shows that it was yuppie men around the age of twenty-five who were the group with the biggest swing. The Coalition tax reforms were going to touch the big spenders who gave Paul seven million dollars to win his election. Labour spent more money on this election than any party ever has in Australian history. So much for your Labour-Tory-sell-off-our-national-estate-Thatcherite mates, Sylvia.
Liberal Party Candidate for Capricornia,
Contrary to what Michael Hofmann claims (LRB, 27 May), the phrase ‘fury of disappearance’ – Furie des Verschwindens – is not Enzensberger’s but Hegel’s. The latter uses it in his Phenomenology of Spirit (Vol. II, page 453) to characterise the ‘universal freedom’ proclaimed by the French Revolution: it cannot build anything, only destroy.
A.N. Wilson lends weight to his comment (LRB, 27 May) on ‘the ropiness of Sayers’s attempts at verse’ in misquoting ‘Sayers’s most famous ditty’. The original –
As I grow older and older,
And totter towards the tomb,
I find that I care less and less
Who goes to bed with whom
– lacks the wit and rhythm of A.N. Wilson’s version.
Jenny Turner (LRB, 13 May) describes Lord Horror (1990) as ‘the now banned British comic book’. For one thing, David Britton’s work isn’t a comic book but a fantasy novel consisting of eighty thousand words of continuous narrative without a single illustration, even on the cover. For another thing, it isn’t now banned, since the destruction order was reversed on appeal. What she presumably has in mind is the associated comic book series Meng & Ecker.
Miles Burrow complains of being rather in the dark about Catullus’s irrumabo (Letters, 27 May). To judge strictly from its etymology this should mean: ‘I shall put a teat (ruma) in your mouth.’ But when the teat is seen as the male organ, and when the spirit is one of angry aggression, the effect is transformed. The standard work on this, and similarly edifying topics, is The Latin Sexual Vocabulary by J.N. Adams.
Ian Aitken’s piece on Lord George-Brown in your 27 May number ought to serve as a stern warning to governments and electorates everywhere in regard to intemperate men in high office. President Lyndon Johnson was known to be a heavy drinker, contemporaneously with the tragic USA involvement in South-East Asia, and the later US President who adamantly escalated that war – US libel law precludes further identification – was described in print by his Secretary of State as drunk a good deal of the time. The world is an increasingly fragile place. Mental incompetence in its leadership isn’t needed by any of us.
Greer, South Carolina
Ian Aitken’s review of a history of the Guardian from 1956 to 1988 (LRB, 13 May) concludes by noting that the paper’s future direction will be to represent the Left in the ‘broadest sense’. But it would be better if it were more like the French daily Libération with which it sometimes compares itself. As for left-wing loonyism on the Guardian’s letters page, I am doing my best.
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.