If we extract the core of Seymour Hersh’s article from the story of dark doings in the US military we find yet another plea for embracing the Assad regime as a ‘lesser evil’ (LRB, 7 January). We will point out just two of the egregious factual errors in Hersh’s account. First, he repeats the myth about weapons supplied to the FSA being passed on to IS; his source for this is IS itself, relayed by the German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, who wasn’t proved right over the 2012 Houla massacre. Hersh accepts what he has to say without question. As it happens there is hard intelligence on this matter. Conflict Armament Research has carried out an analysis of the weapons captured from IS by the YPG in Koban and northern Iraq which shows that IS’s stock of weapons is overwhelmingly made up of arms captured from the Syrian and Iraqi armies.
Second, Hersh writes as if IS and the other opposition forces in Syria are allies, referring to ‘extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS’. In fact the Syrian armed opposition has been the most consistent opponent of IS, expelling them from Aleppo in January 2014 and from much of the rest of the country by the summer, while Assad chose to bombard them and ignore IS.
Hersh does no better on the political front. It is universally accepted that in Iraq there must be a political strategy to undermine the hold of IS – i.e. a government in Baghdad in which the Sunni minority can have some confidence. But Hersh for some reason thinks that doesn’t apply to Syria. No one can doubt that were the West to embrace Assad, it would provide IS with a far more powerful propaganda weapon than any it currently possesses.
There is, it hardly needs saying, also a moral dimension. IS is a brutal terrorist organisation, responsible for some 1800 civilian deaths in Syria, and linked to another eight hundred killings elsewhere in the world. But the Assad regime too is a brutal organisation, responsible for more than 100,000 civilian deaths, and the sort of countrywide devastation that IS can only dream of. By what conceivable criteria can Assad be regarded as the ‘lesser’ of these two repugnant evils?
Nader Hashemi; Thomas Pierret; Yassin al-Haj Saleh; Brian Slocock
University of Denver, Colorado; University of Edinburgh; Istanbul; Chester
Seymour Hersh’s account of Uighur involvement in Syria oversimplifies both the violence in Xinjiang in western China and the causes of Uighur migration to Turkey. Hersh quotes the Syrian ambassador to China as saying that Turkish intelligence has been sponsoring the flow of ‘jihadist Uighurs’ to Syria, then adds that they ‘are known to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – an often violent separatist organisation that seeks to establish an Islamist Uighur state in Xinjiang’. Hersh here essentially repeats the arguments the Chinese government has been putting forward since 9/11 to explain the sporadic violence in Xinjiang. But he fails to acknowledge the economic marginalisation, ethnic discrimination, religious and cultural repression that Uighur communities have been suffering for decades. His reference to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is particularly telling. The status (and sometimes existence) of this group has long been in question, and though it’s true there has been an upsurge in terrorist violence in Xinjiang in the last few years, it remains unclear who is responsible. Meanwhile Syria, as China’s ally, has a stake in endorsing its claims: Hersh should at least have indicated that they are widely contested.
Hersh’s other main source on Xinjiang, an unnamed ‘Washington foreign affairs analyst’, claims there has been a ‘rat line’ sending Uighur jihadists from China to Syria via Kazakhstan and Turkey. What Hersh and his informant fail to mention is that Uighurs have been fleeing Xinjiang for decades, certainly since long before IS sprang up, and that judging by the people who have been seen in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, most have been families seeking asylum. China has repeatedly claimed that hundreds of Uighurs have been fighting with IS, but neither they nor anyone else can support this assertion. A small minority may be involved in the Syrian conflict, but to portray all Uighur migrants in this way only serves to legitimise China’s repressive policies against Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Battle, East Sussex
David Campbell argues that we should abandon our attempts to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions (LRB, 5 November 2015). He claims that the faster China reduces its carbon emissions per unit of GDP (‘emissions intensity’), the more its absolute emissions will rise. This would be true if China were simply adding new plant powered by fossil fuels, albeit more efficiently. It is not so clearly true, though, if a substantial portion of the new plant is powered by renewable forms of energy or nuclear energy, or if the amount of energy required per unit of GDP falls significantly. Both of these developments are said to have been taking place in China.
Campbell raises the prospect of ‘unbounded growth’ in China’s emissions, presumably until the intended peak in 2030. But a report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change looking at the effect of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions supposes that, where a country states a year by which emissions are intended to peak, the annual growth rate in emissions decreases steadily from its present value to zero in the stated year. Such a transition, to a form of growth with stabilised or reducing emissions, seems more plausible than one in which emissions grow uncontrolledly, then suddenly stop growing at all.
I was pleased to learn that Alan Bennett was able to enjoy the National Gallery’s exhibition of Rembrandt’s later works in such a tranquil atmosphere (LRB, 7 January). For most of the general public, however, it was something of a scrum. When I turned up mid-afternoon, about three minutes in advance of the period for which I had booked, I found a queue outside the exhibition which seemed to snake back for about a hundred yards. Once I’d got in, about a quarter of an hour later, I discovered myself wedged into a densely packed crowd shuffling forward at a snail’s pace in mounting temperature. Now and then, I managed to glimpse a portion of a painting. I finally squeezed through the crowd and made my escape half an hour after entering, grateful to encounter fresh air again.
The then director of the National, Nicholas Penny, when reminded of how disgruntled many of the visitors to both this and the Leonardo exhibition had been, responded that lots of people ‘don’t mind queuing because it reassures them that they are in the right place’. He might have added that they could always eat cake while they were waiting.
Alan Bennett worries that ‘wardering’ at the National Gallery might be outsourced to Serco. I misread the word as ‘wandering’. But then, why not? Hired wanderers could perform the same function as Flann O’Brien’s pre-graffitied books, taking the burden off warders by answering such predictable questions as ‘Was Velásquez married?’ (the question most frequently asked by visitors to the Prado), or ‘Is there a postcard of this painting in the gift shop?’ – to which the correct answer is usually ‘no’. They would never wander too close to the paintings, take unauthorised photographs or dawdle at closing time. There would be no shortage of homeless people or students who would take the work in exchange for a cup of tea and a stale bun, just to keep warm.
Newbold on Stour, Warwickshire
Alan Bennett describes a hawk ‘spreading its wings over its prey and as it were cloaking it from view though never letting up from tearing strips off the now dead bird’. The behaviour, called ‘mantling’, is practised by many birds of prey. As Bennett saw, the main aim is to shield the prey from other predators; the tail, too, is often spread to provide counterbalance. The instinct runs strongly enough for it to be expressed by birds in captivity, which, despite feeding in solitary enclosures, will often mantle over their food. Horatio Clare, in Down to the Sea in Ships, used the term metaphorically: ‘The Captain looks like an outraged owl, mantling over a grievance he will never forget.’
Alan Bennett asks whether, if Odysseus and Penelope had an old age, anyone has written about it. Tennyson in ‘Ulysses’ depicts a cantankerous old king who, disenchanted with domestic life and his ‘aged wife’, resolves to set sail for new adventures with his now geriatric crew (‘Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me’).
Kathleen Ferrier could not have recorded Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs because he wrote it for a high voice. Ferrier was a contralto, not a soprano, so even if she’d tried there would have been no possibility of her reaching the notes that Strauss wrote.
It is easy to label a new theory ‘improbable’ simply because it is new, instead of offering arguments against it. Michael Neill does this when he rejects a proposal put forward this year by Mark Griffiths in Country Life (LRB, 17 December 2015). Does Neill accept that the fourth figure on the title page of John Gerard’s The Herball is likely to be a historical person, given that he accepts that the other three represent Gerard, Lord Burghley and the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens? Has he considered how unlikely it is that the fourth figure, if he was merely allegorical, would have been furnished with a difficult-to-read emblem? Does he accept that the person, if historical, was likely to have been a poet, playwright or actor, given that he has a laurel crown, and is wearing ‘stage’ Roman dress?
Does Neill accept that such emblems required much ingenuity in their composition, and require it, too, in their interpretation? (Presumably he does.) If so, on what grounds does he find Griffiths’s interpretation over-ingenious? Does he think that to read the figure 4 + E as ‘quat’ + e, the Latin imperative ‘shake’, is beyond the bounds of plausibility? Does he deny that a spear is visually present? That the letter W appears at the base where this type of emblem often placed the initial letter of a first name? Does he think it counts towards corroboration of Griffiths’s identification of Shakespeare as the fourth figure that a copy of The Herball had ‘WS S S S WS’ written in an Elizabethan or Jacobean hand in the margin close to the image?
It is particularly inappropriate for Neill to have put forward such a view in an account of James Shapiro’s book 1606. Shapiro himself does some fantasising: he fantasises that King Lear was written in 1606, when the evidence points to Shakespeare’s authorship of the play Leir, which was entered for publication in 1594. The printer Jane Bell assumed a right to publish King Lear in 1655 on the basis of the right she had to the 1594 Leir. He also assumes that Macbeth was written immediately after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Yet it is arguable that William Kemp jokes about the play in 1600 in his Nine Daies Wonder. He refers to the ‘first making’ of a ‘penny Poet’, a ‘miserable stolne story of Macdoel, or Macdobeth, or Macsomewhat’, which he (Kemp) never had the ‘maw’ to see – ‘see’ implying a stage production.
If you are going to write a study in which the precise date Shakespeare’s plays were written is critical, you shouldn’t assume that the traditional chronology is correct. Apparent parallels with real events are not enough: there are always parallels to be found in any decade you pick. Shapiro’s fantasies are accepted because they are shared by hundreds of scholars. Griffiths’s ‘fantasies’ are not because they are not – yet.
As a long-time subscriber and occasional contributor to Country Life, I do not know what to make of Michael Neill’s snide remarks about the magazine. Perhaps if I spent less time reading the LRB (to which I have subscribed for not quite so long), I would be more than an ‘occasional’ reader of books. Like many architectural historians I find Country Life indispensable – just as the LRB is for anyone who claims to be interested in, well, almost anything. And I quite like being flattered by what I read, if that implies the assumption of a degree of education and intelligence on my part; it’s better than being talked down to. Doesn’t the LRB flatter its readers by assuming they understand ‘lachrymatics’, to take a word at random from the same issue?
Nick Richardson’s quotation from the ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’ brought to mind the 1920s Communist Party version (LRB, 17 December 2015). The chorus was:
With Moscow gold and dynamite we’ll set the people free.
Oh it’s my delight on a shiny night to bomb the bourgeoisie.
It was a favourite of Denis Healey’s.
Jonathan Shaw claims that Margaret Beckett’s speech was ‘the best’ in the Commons debate about the bombing of Syria (LRB, 17 December 2015). It wasn’t; it was, along with Hilary Benn’s manipulative misuses of history (‘fascism’, the Spanish Civil War, the International Brigades), one of the worst, vintage stuff from the warrior class of 2003, not to mention 1999 (to the claim that bombing alone doesn’t work, Beckett’s schoolmistressy response was ‘tell that to the Kosovans’).
‘We are already a target,’ Shaw writes, summarising Beckett. But we’re not, in the sense evoked by David Cameron of facing ‘armed attack’ by IS. We are at risk of terror attacks ‘linked to or inspired by’ IS (Cameron again). ‘We have a UN resolution,’ Shaw adds, ‘not just permitting but urging us all to do what we can to defeat IS and remove its safe haven in Syria and Iraq.’ This is taken to provide cover for bombing Raqqa, but the resolution nowhere states that bombing is necessary (let alone sufficient) to defeat IS. The resolution is deliberately crafted so as to avoid saying what Shaw and Beckett want it to say. Shaw’s conclusion that ‘militarily, legally and morally we have been at war with IS all along’ begs many questions. James Meek’s piece in the same issue is a great help in this regard.
King’s College, Cambridge
Gaby Wood’s conclusion that in using the Rolleiflex for war reportage Lee Miller was ‘asserting that there was something qualitatively different to be shown in a war’ is based on a misunderstanding of the photographic technology of the time (LRB, 17 December 2015). Wood assumes that 35mm cameras were the norm in 1944 but in fact they were used only by a small minority of photographers. Most news photographers and many military photographers were still using the vastly bigger and slower 4x5 Speed Graphic. The Rollei, technically considered a miniature camera at the time, became standard equipment for civilian press photographers after the war and wasn’t replaced by the 35mm camera until the late 1950s.
Many photographers considered the Rollei perfect for photojournalism because its 75mm lens delivered full-frame, slightly wide-angle images of far higher quality than those produced by 35mm cameras, while any section of the negative could be used to gain a medium telephoto view of the same quality as that produced by the 35mm camera. This combination was referred to as ‘wide-angle telephoto’. At the same time, the twins lens reflex design lent itself better to careful composition than the 35mm rangefinder cameras of the era (the SLR was yet to come into general use). It also allowed the camera to be held at odd angles away from the photographer to take views from above or below, or even surreptitiously to the side, while still giving a clear view of the framing. And while lenses could be changed on 35mm rangefinder cameras, framing and focusing were more difficult, and the range of focal lengths was limited. In practice, most of the photographers who did use 35mm cameras in wartime either stuck to one lens or carried two cameras fitted with different lenses, a practice that continued well into the 1970s.
Wood misses one important aesthetic consequence of using a Rollei: square rather than rectangular images, as illustrated by the two photos shown in the article.
Ithaca, New York
In his review of Ian Klaus’s Forging Capitalism, John Pemble identifies Adam Smith as the favourite punch-bag of Victorian anti-capitalists (LRB, 7 January). But Pemble – and Klaus – perpetuate some enduring myths about Smith’s stance towards laissez-faire capitalism. He did not insist, as Pemble alleges, that ‘capitalism left to itself … must produce the best of all possible worlds.’ Smith devoted whole chapters of The Wealth of Nations to arguing for universal state-funded education and poverty relief. On workers’ rights, he posited that whenever regulation ‘is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable’. He was well aware of the dangers of unfettered banking, and argued for a ban on the 18th-century equivalent of payday loans.
I agree with Julian Barnes that there’s not much to Vigée Le Brun’s art, and that her little moppet with the sewing bag probably deserves strangling (LRB, 17 December 2015). He’s a bit hard, even so, on one aspect of the painting. He says that the girl ‘would “normally", i.e. in “real life", be looking where she is rummaging’, but I suspect the painter has tried to portray her caught in the act, looking up because someone has distracted her or called her name. It’s hardly a new artifice: Michelangelo did something similar with his statue of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Or think of John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft at the Tate – she’s glancing up from her book and looks as if on the whole she’d rather get back to it.
University of Florida, Gainesville
Unlike Julian Barnes, I was unable to push my way through the crush of people at the Musée d’Orsay to get close enough to see the pornographic films. What really irritated me, however, was the fact that even in such a huge and rambling exhibition there seemed to be no acknowledgment that there was such a thing as male prostitution. Only in one of the darkened rooms behind heavy curtains (off-limits to the under-18s) did I spot three tiny carte-de-visite photographs (from 1898, I think), depicting two naked adult men performing anal and oral sex. The museum’s captions in tiny print, almost impossible to read in the subdued lighting appropriate for antique photos, made a passing reference to male brothels, but otherwise the phenomenon was ignored.
University of Florida, Gainesville
My late father-in-law was a Luftwaffe pilot flying, we believe, a Dornier 18 (Letters, 19 November 2015 and Letters, 3 December 2015). His mission in the first days of the war was to fly over the Channel, bomb a military target in England and return to Germany. He was reassured that the RAF was effectively non-existent. However, the German intelligence was faulty, the RAF scrambled several Spitfires, and he was shot down. His crew (gunner, radio man and co-pilot) were immediately killed, but because he thought the co-pilot was still alive, and because he was afraid of drowning, instead of bailing out he unfastened his harness and flew the aircraft into the water. He went face-first through the acrylic windscreen.
He was very cut up, but still alive, when a Norwegian trawler fished him out of the water, patched him up as best they could, and delivered him to England. After extensive life-saving surgery, he was sent to a POW camp in Canada and eventually repatriated to his farm in northern Germany, where he lived a long, productive, peaceful life. He never flew again – either as a pilot or commercially. The RAF pilot who shot him down contacted him after the war and they maintained a correspondence. They finally decided to meet in England, but the RAF pilot died before they could.
Cos Cob, Connecticut
Adam Shatz writes that Sarkozy was the last French president before Hollande to have declared a state of emergency (LRB, 3 December 2015). In fact it was Chirac during the riots in 2005, at which time Sarkozy served as minister of the interior in the Villepin government.
Gavin Francis mentions the herbalist’s shop opposite the old medical school in Edinburgh (LRB, 19 November 2015). In August 1964, freshly graduated in botany, I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Edinburgh while attending the International Botanical Congress. I passed the herbalist’s as I came and went from the congress. After it had finished, I decided to visit another uncle who lived at Lochmaben, and being inclined at that stage in my life to solitary walks, I walked down through the Border hills. I would travel light, with a toothbrush and a notebook in an old meal-bag, and sleep rough when night fell, seeking shelter only if the need arose.
I set out across the Pentland hills on a sunny morning, amused at the shooting parties with their tweeds, dogs, guns and hampers, and descended to the Tweed at Neidpath Castle around four o’clock. I crossed and rested a while on a shingly spit. There was only one other human in sight, but his strange behaviour aroused my curiosity; he moved down the spit at a slow pace stooping frequently. I went over and quizzed him, and he explained that he was gathering yarrow, a year’s supply, for he owned the herbalist’s shop I had seen earlier in the week. Yarrow was useful, I learned, for colds, hayfever, toothache and baldness. I told him that I was a botanist, and had seen a good amount of yarrow on my way. Had I also, he asked, seen any euphrasia? He usually managed each year to find what he needed, but this year he was short of dainty little ‘Eyebright’, essential for making up his eye ointment. I confessed I had not. I wished him goodbye and set off southwards up the Manor Water to sleep eventually on a bed of bracken by a ruined castle.
Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire
Regarding Jenny Diski’s view of Sufis, I think she’s right (LRB, 17 December 2015). Regarding Seán Gallagher’s view of Sufis, I think he’s right. Regarding those who regard my views as inconsistent, I think they’re right too.
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