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Vol. 31 No. 2 · 29 January 2009

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Casus Belli

Thomas Laqueur says that the US went to war with Mexico ‘because President Polk saw in the disputed lands of Texas, the casus belli, a new slave state’ (LRB, 18 December 2008). Texas, however, had been admitted as a slave state before Polk attacked Mexico. He attacked because he coveted Mexican territory, especially California (which entered the Union as a free state two years after the war ended). He sent US troops into Mexico in the hope that it would defend itself and thus provide the excuse for war. ‘We were sent to provoke a fight,’ Ulysses Grant later admitted, ‘but it was essential that Mexico should commence it.’ When Mexico failed to respond to the US incursion quickly enough for his liking, Polk composed a declaration of war anyway, stressing alleged Mexican debts and the spurning of a US diplomatic mission; he was revising it when news reached him that there had been a Mexican-US clash. He altered his message to claim, untruthfully, that Mexico ‘has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood on American soil’.

Despite Laqueur’s disclaimers, racism was important in the Mexican war and its aftermath. Americans said that they were spreading republican institutions, liberty and true religion by conquering Mexico, just as they did when they exterminated Indians and enslaved blacks. But the reality on the ground, as well as the ideology, resembled that of previous conquests. Ironically, US racism saved Mexico from total destruction: many Yankees doubted that Mexicans could be assimilated into white, Anglo-Saxon America, and therefore allowed the heavily populated southern areas to remain independent.

Laqueur also claims that ‘Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas’ in 1864 was meant partly ‘to show Northern voters that victory was nigh’. Sherman occupied Atlanta on 2 September, and deliberately stayed put until after the election. His march didn’t begin until 15 November, a week after Lincoln won his second term. Lincoln worried greatly about Sherman’s plan, and acquiesced to it only reluctantly. Laqueur approvingly quotes Faust’s howler that ‘far more people attended church than voted’ in the election. That is because women, men of 20 and under, and most African Americans and unnaturalised immigrants could attend church but could not vote. About 81 per cent of men eligible to vote did so.

Finally, it is misleading to say, as Laqueur does, that Lincoln vowed vengeance after Confederate forces massacred surrendered US soldiers of African descent. Lincoln did indeed do so, but rescinded his order before it could be implemented. His worry was that retaliation, once begun, might never end: ‘Blood cannot restore blood, and government should not act for revenge.’ There were no retaliatory killings of Confederate prisoners.

Clifton Hawkins
Berkeley, California

Reporting Iraq

McGuire Gibson writes that ‘it has always been very difficult to get media coverage of the continuing destruction of thousands of archaeological sites in southern Iraq’ (LRB, 1 January). Perhaps it would have been better if he had addressed his concerns to National Geographic, his sponsor in Iraq, who fired their reporter Peter Arnett on 31 March 2003 for his criticisms of US planning of the war.

Tom Nagel


In his review of my book A Strange Eventful History, David Edgar credits me with having pioneered the use of fiction in biography (LRB, 1 January). But though I welcome many biographical experiments (and enjoyed the imaginary conversations in Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens), I do not myself attempt to fictionalise my characters. I speculate, paraphrase, parody and employ some novelistic narrative techniques. But the only devices of dramatic make-believe I use are the daydreams and fantasies of the characters themselves. I am not a biographical actor; I am an author-director. Edgar also suggests that I have abandoned my youthful boldness because I hesitate over the question of whether Henry Irving and Ellen Terry were lovers. My aim was to present the reasons why the Victorians did not want the pair to be exposed as sexual partners, and to show how the actors themselves bowed to the public’s wishes. But I make my own opinion pretty clear.

Michael Holroyd
London W10

Bennett’s Dissection

Department of Chinese Whispers (LRB, 1 January): ‘He zigged when he should have zagged’ was written about (not said by) Randolph Turpin, by Red Smith (not Butler).

Tom Stoppard
London SW10

I accept Alan Bennett’s rebuttal of my coarse suggestion in the Daily Mail that the frocked man in his 1980 play Enjoy is in fact his homosexual alter ego slipped into something more comfortable. But I am reminded of the old psychoanalytic joke about the analysand who tells his shrink: ‘Whoever this woman is in my dreams, she’s got nothing to do with my mother.’

Patrick Marmion
London NW10

Alan Bennett is absolutely right to express unease at the unfairness of private education. But I’m a bit mystified at his remark that privately educated pupils are ‘better taught’ than those in the state system. I teach at a sixth-form college in West London that was recently rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. What the students at our school don’t get is the cultural and social capital that the private school system is so effective at reinforcing and transmitting. School fees buy social advantage, not better teachers.

Chris Horner
London WC1

Alan Bennett calls for seagulls, which he comes across terrorising a heron in Camden, to be dispatched back to the seaside towns from whence they came. But surely the magpie is a far greater menace? I once came across a gang of them stamping on a fellow magpie they had pinned to the pavement in my street. Mind you that was in Tottenham not Camden, so perhaps it was only to be expected.

Keith Flett
London N17

Run on the Rouble

Just before New Year, I went to the Sberbank and transferred my grandmother’s life savings out of roubles and into a new account denominated in dollars, as I threatened to do in my Diary (LRB, 20 November 2008). It took a while, because the Sberbank clerk wasn’t satisfied with the forms I brought authorising me to use the account: she kept calling someone at headquarters and saying, ‘I have someone here whose forms are filled out wrong. Are the forms filled out wrong?’ In the end, though, it all worked out. Since then the rouble has continued to fall, and I no longer worry about it; in truth, we should have taken my grandmother’s money out of the bank much sooner. Which reminds me. While I was standing at the window arguing with the clerk about my forms a young police officer with a Kalashnikov rushed into the bank. ‘You rang your alarm!’ he said. The clerk did not recall ringing any alarms, and certainly since I’d been there no one had tried to rob us. ‘Well,’ the officer conceded, a little sheepishly, ‘you rang it a while ago. But the traffic was very bad.’

Keith Gessen

Never mind the bad smells

Hugh Pennington is quite wrong about Florence Nightingale’s views on germ theory (Letters, 1 January). She explains in her writing on India that Robert Koch’s research on a cholera epidemic in Calcutta in 1883 prompted her rethinking. When Nightingale began work around 1850, germ theory was mere speculation. Even Joseph Lister’s landmark article on aseptic surgery, published in 1867, didn’t refer to specific germs, but to ‘minute organisms suspended’ in the air and ‘floating particles’. Notes on Nursing, which was written in 1859 and never intended for professional nurses, could hardly be expected to contain any discussion of such a subject. Germ theory received rudimentary coverage in lectures at the Nightingale School as early as 1873, and by 1891 she was advocating the use of magic lantern shows at village lectures in India to demonstrate the existence of bacilli, ‘the noxious living organisms in foul air and water’, as a way to encourage villagers to adopt strict hygiene measures.

Lynn McDonald
University of Guelph, Canada

Gt a lfe

Leah Price’s piece on the origins of Pitman shorthand made me feel as if I might not be the last person standing who knows how to ‘do’ Pitman (LRB, 4 December 2008). I was taught it at an essentially all-girls high school in Chicago, where I’d been sent as a punishment for juvenile vandalism. As a would-be court reporter and cub journalist, my stenographic world was divided between upright Pitmanites and morally flabby practitioners of the rival (and more popular) system, Gregg shorthand. I got up to 125 wpm, which was considered quite good ‘for a boy’, and later as a film critic in London I always knew how deeply bored I was by a film, usually one of Antonioni’s or Godard’s, when I began unconsciously transcribing the dialogue in Pitman shorthand on the palm of my hand.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

Good Clean Fun

John Lanchester writes of video-gamers that ‘they want pornography, broadly defined. They want to see things they aren’t supposed to see. This is why video games, in general … are so preoccupied with violence’ (LRB, 1 January). I’m not sure how true this is: gaming is certainly about doing things you can’t normally do, but it’s most importantly about doing things you find fun. And sex and violence aren’t quite as high up the list of what most people find most fun as Lanchester seems to think.

Of the 20 bestselling console games of all time, only one (a Grand Theft Auto game) involves any real-world violence: the number one, Nintendogs, is a ‘pet’ game; number two is from the Pokémon series; and most of the others are driving or role-playing or platform games, all of which involve escape and vicarious thrills, but not violence in any pornographic sense. The bestselling game series is not Grand Theft Auto, but The Sims, a ‘virtual life’ simulation. The most played games aren’t violent either: the cute online racing game Kart Rider, which has 160 million players, including a third of all South Koreans; the social networking and gaming site Habbo Hotel, with more than 100 million registered users, 90 per cent of whom are teens or pre-teens, and 60 per cent of whom are female. Although pornography can indeed be got at ‘any time’ from the internet, only two of the hundred most visited websites relate to pornography, and 99 per cent of traffic is non-pornographic. Wild predictions from its early days that the internet would be warped beyond utility by human baseness have proved unfounded, and I think this will be true of games too.

Tom Chatfield
London WC1

What about Camus?

Elif Batuman quotes Georges Canguilhem’s observation that none of the ‘philosophers of existence’ joined the French Resistance (LRB, 20 November 2008). Camus may not have been strictly speaking a philosopher, or even an existentialist, but he certainly risked his life for the Resistance.

Nicholas Pole
London NW8

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