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Vol. 29 No. 10 · 24 May 2007

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Our Man

Perry Anderson’s review of two books on Kofi Annan is a classic example of conspiracy theory (LRB, 10 May). That is, it seeks to explain events by postulating conscious collusion among those who played a part in them, and in the process arrives at a narrative which is largely unrecognisable to the actors themselves. Certainly I do not recognise myself as the kind of thought-policeman he describes, brought in to impose the editorial line of the Financial Times and, in March 1999, standing over a helpless secretary-general until he agreed, reluctantly, to issue a statement legitimising Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

In fact, Annan had been on record since the previous summer as thinking both that the international community should not allow a repetition in Kosovo of the ethnic cleansing that had taken place in Bosnia, and that any decision to intervene militarily should be taken by the Security Council. As often happens in real life, the actual course of events placed these two opinions in tension, if not contradiction, with each other – and this tension was inevitably apparent in the statement that Annan issued. As a middle-ranking adviser, I did not – and could not have – put pressure on him to say anything he did not believe.

I cite this example because it concerns me personally. But Anderson’s whole article is riddled with forced and distorted interpretations. Uninformed readers of his one-paragraph summary of the Oil for Food allegations would get the impression that the Volcker Commission suspected, but could not prove, that Annan played a part in awarding inspection contracts in Iraq to Cotecna, a company that had employed his son Kojo in West Africa. In fact the committee found unequivocally that he had played no part. Where they decided to accept his word, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, was in his statement that he did not even know Cotecna was bidding for the contract in question until after it had been awarded. Why exactly Cotecna continued to pay Kojo substantial ‘non-compete’ fees for five years after he ceased working for them remains unclear. But the committee did not challenge Kofi Annan’s statement that he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ to learn of these payments when they became public.

Anderson’s broader points about the UN – that the US has played a major part in shaping its structure and decisions throughout its history, but had greater difficulty doing so during the Cold War – are truisms. A world organisation is unlikely to achieve much without the active engagement and co-operation of the world’s most powerful state. Annan understood this, and strove to overcome differences between the US and the rest of the membership. That was never easy and since 2003 has become more or less impossible.

Edward Mortimer

Warmer, Warmer

John Lanchester’s piece on climate change was powerfully disturbing (LRB, 22 March). But he’s wrong on two counts about the absence of ‘terrorist attacks’ on SUVs. First, there have been at least a few such attacks in the US: in April 2005, William Cottrell was sentenced to eight years in federal prison and ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution for destroying some 125 SUVs at dealerships and homes in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles; and the Earth Liberation Front has repeatedly claimed responsibility for damaging or destroying SUVs over the last few years. Second, the destruction of property alone without harm to living things hardly constitutes terrorism. There is an ongoing debate in the United States about the destruction of inanimate objects and whether it constitutes violence in the absence of direct threats to human beings.

Rebecca Solnit
San Francisco

Stanley in Bumbireh

Bernard Porter gives the impression that Henry Morton Stanley was not really all that bad (LRB, 5 April). He does, it’s true, mention Bumbireh in enumerating Stanley’s sins. ‘In at least one case,’ he writes, ‘his second battle with the people of Bumbireh in August 1875, there was a strong suspicion that he acted out of revenge’ – but that is hardly the way to describe what happened.

Stanley’s patron was the powerful king of Buganda, who could field thousands of warriors in combat. Outfitted with the king’s bearers and canoes, Stanley made landfall on Bumbireh, a Haya-speaking fishermen’s island in Lake Victoria. After being driven away, he fired on Bumbireh’s men from offshore, killing among others a chief and his wife and infant with his elephant gun. The bloodshed had an ‘extraordinary result’, Stanley reported in the New York Herald, and soon he was away to safety.

After weeks of further exploits, during which he faced mounting regional opposition, Stanley decided to return to Bumbireh: the island had not been sufficiently ‘punished’. He tried to trick Bumbireh’s king into a trap by holding another leader until the king was forcibly delivered as ransom. He then ‘prepared a force of 280 men, 50 muskets, 230 spearmen, placed them in 18 canoes’, and circled back in the water to make an unexpected appearance at a cove on the island. The spearmen were not needed. ‘The savages,’ as Stanley reported in the paper,

rose from their coverts and ran along the hill slopes to meet us, which was precisely what I wished they would do, and accordingly I ordered my force to paddle slowly so as to give them time. In half an hour the savages were all assembled … I ordered a volley to be fired at one group which numbered about fifty … I then ordered the canoes to advance within fifty yards of the shore, and to fire as if they were shooting birds. After an hour the savages saw that they could not defend themselves … [I] told [the canoes] to advance in a body to the shore as if they were about to disembark. This caused the enemy to make an effort to repulse our landing … the bugle sounded … and another volley was fired into the dense crowd, which had such a disastrous effect on them that they retired far up the hill … and our work of punishment was consummated.

The next day Stanley returned and fired a few more shots at the same beach, until people came to him at the water’s edge and begged to be left alone, whereupon Stanley rebuked them for their lack of hospitality.

Paul Landau
College Park, Maryland

‘The Uncommon Reader’

The perceived threat from reading which Alan Bennett’s story ‘The Uncommon Reader’ put me in mind of (LRB, 8 March) has a powerful resonance in New Zealand, in James K. Baxter’s ‘The Private Conference of Harry Fat’:

Said Harry Fat: ‘I’ve heard it said
The Civil Service needs
Protection from the Communists
Who sow rebellious seeds
The right man in the right place

Will pluck them out like weeds.’
‘We must keep watch,’ said Holyoake ‘On any man that reads.’

Keith Holyoake was prime minister of New Zealand from 1960 to 1972.

Michael Hodder
Carterton, New Zealand

The Politics of Naming

Both Mahmood Mamdani and Elliott Green uncritically accept the Lancet’s estimate that the number of ‘excess’ Iraqi deaths caused by the conflict up to June 2006 was between 393,000 and 943,000, yet there are serious reasons to doubt the credibility of this claim (Letters, 26 April). A joint research team led by the Oxford physicists Sean Gourley and Neil Johnson and the economist Michael Spagat at Royal Holloway concluded, in a report published in Science, that the study was ‘fundamentally flawed’ in a way that systematically exaggerates the death toll. The Slate science writer Fred Kaplan, in a published debate with the authors of the report, calls the methods used ‘highly questionable’.

The United Nations reported that 34,452 violent deaths occurred in Iraq in 2006, based on data from morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities, while the Iraq Body Count reported approximately 24,500 civilian deaths. (Extrapolated over four years, these figures more or less accord with those quoted by the Iraqi Health Ministry.) The Lancet study, meanwhile, recorded an excess mortality rate of 14.2 deaths per 1000 per year as of June 2006, which would amount to 370,000 deaths for the whole year. In 2006, therefore, the Lancet records more than 300,000 violent deaths that have, bizarrely, gone completely unrecorded by any other means.

Sean Coleman

Beyond Flimsy

Jessica Olin adduces a 2005 New York Times article by Louise Story as evidence that many Ivy League women intend to sacrifice their careers to be stay-at-home mothers (LRB, 10 May). At the time, Katha Pollitt (in the Nation) and Jack Shafer (in Slate), among others, demonstrated that Story’s statistics were beyond flimsy: leading questions asked of too small a sample. The truth is that very few American college students will have the luxury of not working. What families once could afford on a single income now requires two. Yet Olin suggests that today’s college girls, lacking ‘any strong sense of vocation’, are frittering away their academic opportunities – so much so that the 19th-century curriculum at North Carolina Goldsboro Female College ‘would make today’s students weep’. From boredom, perhaps, but not from exhaustion. Classes in arithmetic, ‘evidences of Christianity’, hygiene, guitar? Try Mandarin and vector calculus. My American stepdaughter knows that she’s going to have to pay her own way.

Imogen Green
London SW1

McEwan misses a beat

Colm Tóibín is quite right to suggest that Ian McEwan uses ‘current affairs much as a rock band uses drums’ but in On Chesil Beach McEwan misses a beat (LRB, 26 April). Though the novel is set in the summer of 1962, Edward has played his wife-to-be ‘clumsy but honourable’ covers of Chuck Berry by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This would have been impossible as the Stones’ debut single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’, wasn’t recorded until March 1963, and the Beatles did not record a Berry song, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, until 30 July 1963 (it appeared on their second LP in November that year).

George Norton

He had no rivals

I’m glad that Susan Pedersen’s piece on A.J.P. Taylor ended on an upbeat note (LRB, 10 May). For some of us his influence has been decisive. I was a grammar-school sixth-former in the years just after World War Two, hoping to go to Oxford to read history. I was put to read first Philip Guedalla and then Taylor on 19th-century Germany and Austria. The former delighted me, but the latter formed my mind and my pen, so that I cannot help believing that when I came to sit my scholarship examination I actually wrote like A.J.P. Taylor! Then, of course, when I’d made it to Oxford, I joined the throngs in South Schools at 9 a.m. to hear his lectures. He had no rivals. More still, it is clear to me now that I continued to draw on the education he inaugurated when I went on to read and eventually to teach and write theology, that intensely historical discipline. That might have surprised him, and I had scarcely thought of crediting him with such a share in my formation until I read Pedersen’s article.

Leslie Houlden
Temple Balsall, Warwickshire


R.W. Johnson is wrong to suppose that the undergraduate rhetoric tuned at the Oxford Union ‘usually goes with a 2.2’ (LRB, 26 April). Both Asquith and his son were Union presidents who gained a first, as were Hilaire Belloc and John Buchan. Roy Jenkins just missed being elected president and got a first. Denis Healey and Michael Stewart achieved both. In my day the supposition was that ‘Oxford finals firsts attract/Lucidity, unclouded by fact.’

David Ganz
King’s College London

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