On the Take in Iraq
Ed Harriman’s catalogue of the corruption and financial shenanigans surrounding the US presence in Iraq reveals remarkably consistent practice (LRB, 7 July). In 1971 I wrote a book about Cornelius Hawkridge, a Hungarian-American who conducted a vendetta against the military and civilian corruption that dogged the American presence in Vietnam. I still have many volumes of corroborative evidence presented to US Senate hearings at the time: Improper Practices, Commodity Import Program, US Foreign Aid, Vietnam; Military Club Fraud and Currency Manipulations etc. They detail the same kinds of practice as Harriman does. The General Accountability Office’s report of May 1967 revealed that the civilian contractor RMK/BRJ could not account for $120m worth of materiel shipped from the US to Vietnam. RMK/BRJ’s name crops up frequently in investigations from the period in connection with the disappearance of huge sums of taxpayers’ money – one reason for this was the company’s gross overcharging for gasoline (Harriman found evidence of the same thing). The acronym stood for Raymond, Morris-Knudsen, Brown, Root and Jones. Much of the current investigation surrounds Halliburton’s subsidiary KBR, which stands for Kellogg, Brown and Root. I have yet to see anyone point out KBR’s genealogical connections.
A few years ago in Manila I had dinner with John Negroponte when he was still US ambassador there. Later, he would become ambassador to post-Saddam Baghdad and then George W. Bush’s intelligence supremo. He was a Vietnam veteran, and I plied him with questions about the massive corruption during the war. ‘Yes,’ said Negroponte, who had also been involved in the covert funding of the Contras in Nicaragua, ‘we learned an awful lot from that war.’ Foolishly, I took this to imply repentance.
Genuine Great Captains
In the course of his piece about the delusions of the First World War commander-in-chief Douglas Haig, Andrew Bacevich says that American generals – Norman Schwarzkopf, Wesley Clark and Tommy Franks – have a habit of turning short-lived military successes into long-term disasters, or fast attacks into nightmares of military hubris (LRB, 21 July). It’s clear that these political warriors aren’t ‘genuine great captains’, and other American generals could be added to his list.
How about Ulysses S. Grant? His winning of the Civil War led him to the presidency, but why so easily, when his prosecution of the war came at a cost to human life that many thought unbearable? Grant’s obvious disadvantages – slowness, alcoholism, lack of rhetorical stature – didn’t seem to hold him back, though those were admittedly different times. So different, indeed, that even the Confederate general Robert E. Lee was thought to have statesman potential. At least he (unlike Schwarzkopf) got a proper job after the war: he became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. People say that Lee had greatness, but that he did not have the talent for knowing the moment when a successful defence should be turned into a successful attack.
Perhaps recent American generals have another problem: they don’t have the talent for knowing the moment when a successful attack should be turned into a successful defence. In this regard, they may have found their mentor in another person who could go on Bacevich’s list: General William C. Westmoreland, commander in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968. Westmoreland died last month, and he died believing that the South-East Asia campaign was both just and winnable. I don’t know if Grant or Lee spoke about God being on their side, but Westmoreland certainly did. I suppose one can’t blame generals for saying they’re going to win, but making a religion of the hunger for victory or an ideology of ‘our way of life’ must simply be part of the charlatanism that goes with the job nowadays.
What if it had been April?
When I read the remark attributed to Jack Straw in John Sturrock’s ‘Short Cuts’, about the nation having need of people like him and Tony Blair at such bad moments as the run-up to war in Iraq, I couldn’t believe it (LRB, 21 July). Could Straw, who I used to look on as an unusually reasonable politician, really have said anything so hubristic, especially when the bad moments were entirely of the government’s own making? Well, if I’d had any doubts about the facility with which a senior minister can slip into the role of self-appointed father figure, they were quickly removed when I saw on television a bunch of flowers laid at the scene of one or other London bombing which carried an inscription from David Blunkett, the former home secretary, to the effect that he felt grief at having failed to protect the victims as he should have done. I can’t be alone in finding this quite uncalled-for apology repulsive. What sort of role do Straw and Blunkett, marching in lockstep with Blair, believe they are playing? After one atrocity in London and what seems to have been an abortive reprise, the government seems to see itself not as with us but as over us. Indeed, reading in the same issue of the LRB the very suggestive analysis of the EU by Alain Supiot, I was much struck by what he had to say about the ‘refeudalisation’ of its institutions, and then reflected that one aspect of this might well be the seigneurial attitude implicit in messages of condolence like Blunkett’s. My job is to protect you and your job is to serve me. A version of lords and vassals looks like being the new political game played at home, as wars are started on our behalf abroad to bring democracy to the benighted.
John Sturrock writes that ‘if the bombs had gone off at the end of April, instead of early July, i.e. shortly before the general election, the pattern of voting might well have been significantly altered, and the connection with Iraq aired instantly and to beneficial effect.’ What exactly would this ‘beneficial effect’ have been? Even if it had bolstered the turn-out for the Liberal Democrats, it would also have meant extra votes for the Conservatives and, still more disquietingly, for the BNP. Sturrock’s notion that there can be a ‘beneficial effect’ – albeit an indirect one – from terrorist attacks is distasteful.
John Sturrock writes: The removal of the Aznar government, and its replacement by a government that abjured any close identification with Bush/Blair and brought the Spanish contingents back from Iraq, was, as far as I’m concerned, a beneficial effect of the atrocity in Madrid. There is nothing ‘distasteful’ in drawing attention, even in the case of terrorist acts, to the well-known law of unintended consequences. Had the bombs detonated in London led to Blair’s government being returned with a smaller majority, or to a hung parliament, that would have been beneficial. And as a further, lesser benefit, even Blair and co would surely have found it impossible to blather on as they are currently doing in denial of any close connection between their illegal war and acts of home-grown terror.
Join the club
Alain Supiot accuses the 18 out of 25 EU members who supported the US over Iraq of demonstrating ‘scant concern for European solidarity’, and of ‘taking a stand against the two founding members’ (LRB, 21 July). Perhaps it was the other seven countries, a clear minority, which were demonstrating ‘scant concern’. Second, surely there were six founding members of the EEC. Third, he makes the EU sound like a gentleman’s club where the cardinal sin is to take Jacques Chirac’s seat by the fire.
No Apartheid in Israel?
Edward Luttwak cites the ‘democratic representation’ of Israeli Palestinians in support of his claim that apartheid does not exist in Israel (Letters, 23 June). His assertion can be sustained only if one ignores the gerrymandering that has deprived more than four million Palestinian refugees of their legal, political and human rights for over half a century. To imagine Israel as a democracy, he also has to wish out of existence the 3,500,000 Palestinian inhabitants of the Occupied Territories, who live under what is essentially a military dictatorship.
Luttwak wants us to concentrate on the state of Israel itself, but even there ethnic segregation is enforced through planning politics (in housing, education and public services, for example), the expropriation of Palestinian land continues, Palestinians are proscribed from leasing ‘state’ lands, the citizenship laws restrict the rights of indigenous spouses of Palestinian Israelis, while reserving immigration and residency privileges for ethnically selected non-Israelis, and so on. Such civil rights as exist do so at the discretion of an institutionalised ethnic hegemony, and can be overridden to preserve that hegemony’s ethnic majority. All this, according to the United Nations’ deliberations on supremacist regimes, constitutes apartheid.
Frank Kermode seems to accept that the ‘high arts’ serve the enjoyment only of an educated elite (LRB, 23 June). I am reminded of my experience as a Bevin Boy in the East Lancashire coalmines at the end of the Second World War. I was just out of grammar school and, enthralled by my recent discovery of classical music, whistled themes from symphonies, concertos and sonatas incessantly. One day, as I trudged, whistling, in a line of other miners, down a dusty tunnel to my work station, I got a tap on the shoulder. The man behind me was a grizzled old-timer, stooped and scarred from years of work underground. ‘Tha shouldn’t whistle Beethoven in t’ pit,’ he said. ‘When tha whistles, tha ’ears th’ole orchestra, but we only ’ears thee whistlin’.’
I was disappointed not to see any mention of Tobias Smollett in E.S. Turner’s tour of 18th-century spa towns (LRB, 21 July). In Smollett’s epistolary last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), Matthew Bramble and his entourage provide a vivid example of ‘the English … loss of faith in their spas’. Bramble, a hypochondriac of the first order, describes Bath as a ‘rendezvous of the diseased’ in a letter to his doctor at home: ‘We know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s-evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating.’ He wasn’t wrong about this; jacuzzis are notorious breeding grounds for nasty bugs. Scarborough, with its newfangled bathing huts, which Turner mentions, suits Bramble better; at least until Humphry Clinker, his big-hearted, simple-minded servant thinks he’s not waving but drowning, and rushes into the sea to drag him out by his ear.
Monsieur Hire does not hang himself, as Christopher Prendergast has it (LRB, 7 July); he dies of a heart attack while being rescued from the roof of his building.
Solana Beach, California
Not So Rare
Simon Schaffer says that uranium, after some time wandering about the periodic table, finally found its ‘place among the rare earths’ (LRB, 7 July). In fact, uranium, atomic number 92, is located among the actinide series, while the rare earths are found in the lanthanide series, which extends from atomic number 57 to 71.