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Famine as a Weapon

I can add a note to Alex de Waal’s piece on the use of famine as a weapon of war (LRB, 15 June). My study of the foreign policy role of the Canadian navy, A Two-Edged Sword (2012), included an audit of its enforcement of sanctions against Iraq between 1990 and 1998. There is no evidence that the sanctions served the primary purposes of the Western powers, but they did have catastrophic consequences for Iraqis. The UN secretary-general Pérez de Cuéllar sent Martti Ahtisaari on a fact-finding mission to Iraq and Kuwait in March 1991. His report was forwarded to the president of the Security Council three days later: ‘It should … be said at once,’ he wrote, ‘that nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country.’ The recent conflict has wrought near apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanised and mechanised society.

The statistics on infant mortality in Iraq published by the UN Population Division showed a fall from 150 per thousand in 1950-53 to 60 per thousand in 1980-85, but a dramatic increase to 73 per thousand in 1990-95 and 94 per thousand in the ten years beginning in 1995, with under-five mortality at 124 per thousand. A Child and Maternal Mortality Survey conducted in 1999 showed a rise in under-five mortality from 63 per thousand in 1989 to 108 in 1991 and 111 in 1998, with infant mortality rising from 48 per thousand in 1989 to 94 per thousand in 1991 and 101 per thousand in 1998. Maternal mortality more than doubled, rising from 117 per thousand to 310 per thousand in 1994. Sanctions were only one of the causes of the increases, and should be regarded as a multiplier of the effects produced by the bombing of Iraqi infrastructure. With power stations destroyed, water and sewage systems ceased to operate. Rivers provided the only source of water, but were also carrying away sewage. ‘If the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s,’ Carol Bellamy, the executive director of Unicef, reported, ‘there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five’ between 1991 and 1998.

The 1999 Child and Maternal Mortality survey was conducted with the support of Unicef staff, who visited all governorates during the fieldwork and also observed the training of supervisors and interviewers. Even so, following the American and British occupation of Iraq, a UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, led by Unicef and the World Health Organisation, zero-rated the results of the 1999 survey on the basis of a trend-line generated from its own post-facto resurvey conducted in 2006-7. The question has to be asked whether the nations with a tradition of naval blockade deliberately massaged the statistics. There is no reason to think the metrics gathered following the occupation of Iraq were inherently more reliable. Those Iraqis who were robust enough to survive a period of high mortality could be expected to remain healthy following a return to less extreme circumstances. Indeed, a dip in mortality under eased circumstances might be taken as supporting evidence of an earlier spike.

Nicholas Tracy
University of New Brunswick, Canada

Alex de Waal understates both the importance of national politics in preventing modern-day famines, and the persistent role of international politics in causing their recurrence. The gruesome part played by the Patriot Act in preventing modern-day famines, and the persistent role of international politics in causing their recurrence. The gruesome part played by the Patriot Act in preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Somalia in 2011 for fear it would fall into the hands of terrorists recapitulates the use of Public Law 480 regulations to stop US food aid beneficiaries trading with communists in Bangladesh in 1974. At least one and a half million people died in that famine. The episode taught Bangladesh’s political elite that its own survival depended on protecting its population against famine by whatever means necessary, and there has been no famine there since then, despite natural disasters, poverty and conflictual politics. Famine will persist in Somalia, South Sudan, northern Nigeria and Yemen until their ruling elites, which include the US government and the rest of the international community, fear being held to account for starving the people.

Naomi Hossain
Washington DC

Chomsky Says

Much as I admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathisers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ (Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favoured them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.

That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.

Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as a stand-alone digital ‘device’ was a product of its time. No one expects an academic who has committed his career to a particular paradigm to discard it just because the funding stops.

I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection with the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.

Chris Knight
London SE22

Noam Chomsky may honestly believe that the source of his funding in the 1960s was irrelevant but the funder may have had a different perspective. When a government body funds research, it does so on the basis that it considers the research relevant to the department’s brief. To the funder there is no disinterested knowledge. In the decades following the Second World War, not all military funding was directed at finding better ways of killing or maiming more of the enemy’s population than your own; significant funds were directed at information and control, seen as key in future forms of war. Research funded by the military with these ends in mind ushered in artificial intelligence, informatics, the web, GPS, smartphones and Siri, as well as Chomsky’s revolution in linguistic theory.

Hilary Rose
London WC1

Dorelia in Feathers

Rosemary Hill describes how Ida John passed up the chance to marry Clement Salaman, whose family had made a fortune selling ostrich plumes during the ‘feather boom’ of the 1880s (LRB, 29 June). The Salamans were among several Jewish families in London who traded ostrich feathers from South Africa, using their connections to a large community on the Cape of Jewish migrants from Europe; many in that community had moved to Africa to capitalise on the gold and diamonds (as Sarah Stein explains in her book Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews and a Lost World of Global Commerce), but their migration had coincided with the fashion for feathers, and South Africa has a lot of ostriches. The Salamans’ business was one of the few to survive when the feather fell from favour during the First World War, and was still going strong in the mid-1920s.

In 1906 Augustus John painted Dorelia McNeill (who, as Hill recounts, lived with him and Ida in a ménage à trois) wearing feathers. I like to think the feathers were the ‘two natural coloured ostrich feathers’ offered to her by Ida as an inducement to stay when Dorelia, pregnant with Augustus’s child and exasperated by his lack of interest, seemed to be about to leave them both. Dorelia did stay, in the end, and gave birth to her son in a caravan that Augustus had bought from his friend Michel Salaman, Clement’s brother.

Helen Gough
London SW1

Ah but they do

Colin Kidd and Malcolm Petrie’s article on ‘Our National Hodgepodge’ reminded me of an exchange on BBC TV in the immediate aftermath of the Hamilton by-election in 1967, won by Winnie Ewing for the SNP (LRB, 29 June):

Bemused London Interviewer: Isn’t it strange that the Scots have a nationalist party, the Welsh have a nationalist party and the English don’t.

Quintin Hogg (a.k.a. Lord Hailsham): Ah but they do – the Conservative Party.

Peter Holt
Bern, Switzerland


Will Self quotes Richard Barnett as saying that it wasn’t uncommon ‘up until the late 1930s’ for young women on their 21st birthday or on the occasion of their marriage to be given vouchers to have all their teeth taken out (LRB, 29 June). The practice lasted much longer than that. As a civil servant at the Department of Health helping ministers with their reviews of the then Family Practitioner Committees, I met delegations, particularly from the North-East of England, who reported that it was still common for young women to have all their teeth removed on their 16th or 18th birthday as a ‘present’ – and this was in the mid-1990s (by which time the process was free under the NHS).

Richard Carter
London SW15

Whisky and soda would be a more jovial beverage were it actually to contain nitrous oxide, as Will Self suggests it does. Nitrous oxide is used in whipped cream dispensers because it dissolves in fat: soda siphons use plain old global-warming carbon dioxide.

Dick Pountain
London NW1

Magical Solutions

Timothy Shenk quotes Gareth Stedman Jones as saying that ‘the left ought to give up the idea that there’s some other system waiting in the wings instead of capitalism’ and that ‘there’s going to be some end of history where there’s some magical transformative solution and a completely different system takes over’ (LRB, 29 June). I will shortly be 68 years old and have been a Marxist all my adult life, yet I have never heard anyone on the left express these ideas. Stedman Jones is using an old ploy: attribute to the target of your criticism a viewpoint that they don’t actually hold, then proceed to knock it down. Marx did once speculate that people would be hunters in the morning, fishers in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner, but this was hardly a major component in his thought. Scarcely anyone believes there is some ‘magical transformative solution’ waiting out there.

John Cunningham
Adlington, Lancashire

Cyborgs for Earthly Survival!

Jenny Turner, citing Sophie Lewis, says she didn’t know about the racist overtones of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and is ‘shocked’ to learn that Donna Haraway would refer to Lovecraft at all in her idea of the Chthulucene (LRB, 1 June). The implication that Haraway is ‘trafficking irresponsibly in racist narratives’ mistakes Haraway’s intention and ignores the fact that in her essay she explicitly distances herself from the Cthulhu myth in describing her idea of the Chthulucene (note the spelling difference). She writes: ‘These real and possible timespaces are not named after SF writer H.P. Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu … but rather after the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’

Haraway draws heavily on speculative fiction in her work. In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ she questioned the machine nature of the cyborg, and instead applied the cyborgian ideal to the realm of human behaviour in an implicit critique of the machine bias of so much futurism. The Chthulucene similarly repurposes Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror to allow for ‘a vein of SF that Lovecraft could not have imagined or embraced – namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction and scientific fact’.

Haraway isn’t alone in referring to Lovecraft as a way of renegotiating his influence. Recent science fiction has produced many subversions of Lovecraft, as writers, particularly writers of colour, grapple with the racist and colonial legacies of the genre. Examples include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, John Langan’s The Fisherman, Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe and Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean.

I was perplexed too by Turner’s description of Haraway’s fictional reference to Annie Sprinkle as a ‘smug ecosexual in-joke’ rather than a knowing homage to one of the great sexual experimentalists of our age. The legacy of mass population control is racist and sexist, but it is helpful, in the light of falling birthrates in so many countries, to have theories of family and reproduction that account for childlessness as a mass reality or even as a form of protest.

Emily Witt
New York

Neatly Folded

Adam Smyth touches on watermarks without mentioning their use as date-stamps, which sometimes have their own stories to tell (LRB, 15 June). My first purchase of an antique medical text was The Practice of Physick In two Volums [sic] Very much Enlarged (1658). The authors (Riverius, Culpeper and Cole) claim to offer knowledge of the causes and cures of all the diseases of man, and the work is intended for use in situations where a physician may not be at hand. The book is essentially a rehash and ‘improvement’ of Galen’s classic work of late antiquity with much astrology thrown in. There is no hint of Harvey’s discovery in 1628 of the circulation of the blood. When I got the book home and examined it more carefully, I discovered some neatly folded sheets laid in at the back. They comprised a detailed index, written in an elegant hand. On one of them, I found the date watermarked: 1828. At first I was astonished to think that medicine had progressed so little, at least in the popular mind, in 170 years, that this tedious indexing should seem worthwhile. But then I realised that this was still a time in which, for the general public, the more venerable its provenance, the more credible the opinion. And for an ill-educated populace the significance of work such as Harvey’s, even after two hundred years, was not evident. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised in the first place. My father, by no means ill-educated, desperate in the 1940s for relief from rheumatic pain, had resorted, in vain, to herbal remedies I’ve since found prescribed for the same problem in The Practice of Physick.

Raymond Clayton
Stanford, California

Brutus in Britain

Judith More mentions the legend that Brutus after leaving Troy came to Britain (Letters, 29 June). He landed in Totnes, in South Devon. There is a large stone in the main street on which, according to local legend, he is supposed to have stood and proclaimed (in English): ‘Here I stand and take my rest/And this place shall be Totnes.’

Mike Connelly
Totnes, Devon

Unbundling the State

Ian Jack notes the similarity between the biographies of the Brexiters Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, but doesn’t mention their previous collaboration with 21 other male Conservative MPs, MEPs, candidates and activists linked to the Centre for Policy Studies, including Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, to produce a pamphlet in 2005 entitled Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party (LRB, 15 June). Carswell is listed alphabetically as the pamphlet’s first author but the peppering of pretentious references indicates the presence of Gove.

Like many others, I doubt that Gove’s free-market fundamentalism is the result of any sustained intellectual commitment. The ideology to which he and his fellow authors subscribe is more a template on which to hang their prejudices, with a ‘small state’ in ‘a free market’ resolving all problems by contracting out public services for ‘more efficient’ private delivery. Thus, Hunt advocates private health insurance and Gove school vouchers. These and other ‘unbundlings of the state’, the pamphlet argues, will radically ‘redefine the nature of politics’ to ‘capitalise on the anti-politician mood by setting the people free’, primarily ‘from the European Commission’. The enthusiasm thereby generated would then deliver the ‘high wage, low tax, low welfare’ paradise that is still the goal, despite the set-back represented by the sinking of submarine May.

Patrick Ainley
London SE25