A meeting I had in 1979 with a senior Army public relations officer provides anecdotal support for Murray Sayle’s argument in his piece about Bloody Sunday (LRB, 11 July) that the Paras were carrying out a plan to ‘bring the enemy to battle’. I was producing a series of TV plays for the BBC, one of them a film written by Robert Holman about a 16-year-old boy from the North-East who joins the Army, serves in Northern Ireland and is shot. Naively I imagined that we might get help from the Army – that we might be able to film in a Recruitment Office, or use Army equipment – and so I fixed up a meeting. ‘What,’ I asked the officer, ‘is the Army’s policy in Northern Ireland?’ ‘Well, if I had my way,’ he said, ‘we’d line all the Catholics up against a wall and shoot the fucking lot of them.’
Polly Hope (LRB, 8 August) does less than justice to Carolyn Slaughter’s harrowing memoir, Before the Knife. Hope says that the book describes ‘not so much an African childhood as a miserable childhood which happened to take place in Africa’, but one could argue that Slaughter portrays an old-style expatriate mentality which allowed all kinds of moral squalor to flourish. Men who, back in Europe, had been perhaps less than adequate individuals, found themselves in positions of power, licensed to lord it over a whole section of society – the Africans. It is a short step to lording it over your dispirited, lonely and inevitably disappointed wife, and your deracinated offspring. Not all expatriates in Africa lived a ‘Happy Valley’ type existence. More common was day-to-day adversity, poor living conditions, bad health and the pervasive ill-ease that must exist when you don’t understand your environment and are trying by force to control it. These conditions bred harsh values; unremarkable men became tin-pot dictators.
This is what seems to have happened in Slaughter’s family. If Hope is correct, the ‘can-do Rhodies’ of Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, were subject to sexual assaults from outside the family, but decided to get on with their lives, putting the incidents behind them in ‘a few brisk paragraphs’. Slaughter was not able to do that because she was trapped in a situation of repeated abuse within her own family, from whom there was no escape. As she describes it, she was not only raped but beaten and so humiliated and ridiculed that she felt herself to be worthless. I agree that this situation can occur in all societies, but it is more likely to persist where there are few external limits on brutal behaviour, only a primitive code of loyalty and ‘covering-up’, based on skin colour. The man concerned liked to hurt animals and lash out at his servants, and there was nothing secret about this behaviour; he was living in a time and place where it hardly seemed abnormal. Hope describes the ‘usual colonial ills’ as ‘boredom, drink, adultery’, but the fundamental colonial ill was manifested in Slaughter’s father – power employed without check, anxiety or remorse. Small wonder that there is no ‘irony’ in her account of her childhood. Where would the irony lie?
Theresa Heine (Letters, 8 August) makes a fair point about the rarely mentioned political diversity of the Chilean Army in her response to Christopher Hitchens’s review of my book, Pinochet in Piccadilly. Besides the pro-democratic General Carlos Prats, whose dismissal she correctly cites as an important prelude to Pinochet’s coup in 1973, René Schneider, another Chilean general who believed that soldiers should obey elected politicians, was assassinated by local right-wingers in 1970. However, I am not sure that the Chilean Army tradition of non-interference in politics was quite as strong as Heine suggests. There was a well-established liberal and constitutional side to Army thinking, but there were also successful military coups in Chile in 1924, 1927 and 1932. The second of these brought General Carlos Ibáñez, ‘the Chilean Mussolini’, to power for four years. Chile reverted to elected civilian governments between 1932 and 1973, but whenever these threatened right-wing interests some Army officers would become restive. In 1969, for example, there was an Army revolt on the streets of Santiago against the mildly social democratic President Eduardo Frei, and throughout the Presidency of his more radical successor, Salvador Allende, there were escalating instances of insubordination and intimidation by Army officers, despite Schneider and Prats’s efforts to keep their soldiers out of politics. All this makes Pinochet’s coup look less like an American-financed aberration and more like the awakening of an old Chilean Army instinct.
R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 August) claims that it was the prospect of having to invade Japan and suffer a million or more casualties that made Truman decide to drop the first atomic bombs. That may have been what Truman was told. It was not true. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 reported that ‘prior to December 1945 Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if the Russians had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.’ Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, believed that ‘this barbarous weapon … was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.’ It is much more likely that the bombs were dropped to find out how well they worked and as an object lesson to the Soviets about where power lay in the Pacific.
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London N7
I find it hard to believe Joan Rockwell’s confident statement (Letters, 8 August) that Dorothy Sayers wrote ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’ I recall it as a postwar Egg Board slogan: much too late for Sayers. She has been credited, on the other hand, with the slogan ‘A Nice Hot Bovril is Better than a Nasty Cold.’
In his article on Lenin, Slavoj Žižek (LRB, 25 July) writes of Brecht’s response to the crushing by Soviet tanks of the workers’ uprising in East Berlin in July 1956 that ‘he endorsed the violence as a sign of authenticity.’ For a start, although he was undoubtedly a bit of a Leninist, Brecht had an aversion to violence, and it is hard plausibly to link him with Bataille, let alone Ernst Jünger. Second, Žižek presumably means June 1953, not July 1956: there is a significant difference between these dates for any history of the Left. Third, that Brecht waved at the passing Soviet tanks, as Žižek claims, is at best anecdotal; and there is no journal entry from this period in which Brecht muses about joining the Communist Party, or anything even vaguely similar. He did write a letter to Walter Ulbricht, its First Secretary, in which he expressed his allegiance to the Party, but a little later noted in his journal: ‘the workers’ demonstrations have shown that this is the rising class … The important thing would have been to use this first encounter to full advantage. This was the point of contact. It came not as an embrace but as a slap in the face, but it was contact nonetheless.’
St Hugh’s College, Oxford
The ultimate impact of Slavoj Žižek's reference to hard-core porn sites in his discussion of Lenin is not to reinforce but to detract from his argument. His view of Lenin, that we should be realistic and demand the impossible, to borrow a phrase from May 1968, is a refreshing one in the age of Blair. But what I will remember most about his review is the reference to the porn site.
Robert Crawford’s version of Robert Burns’s ‘radicalism’ (LRB, 25 July) seems to amount to a ‘sentimental’ Scottish cultural populism that was ‘republican’ but also inclined towards ‘Jacobitism’. This tells more about the political content of Scottish cultural nationalism as it is today than it does about Burns’s poetry (a close analysis of which might have been helpful). The anti-Modernist, sentimental, blood-and-soil cultural smugness of recent versions of Burns ought to be recognised for what it is: reactionary. Crawford’s version of ‘they the people’ reminds me of Adorno’s riposte to cultural populism: ‘In the end, the glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than the glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.’ In the same way, Crawford’s radical Burns is actually a cultural conservative. Burns was vacillating, bombastic, insecure and perfervid by turns, but his poetry is as delicately complex as any. It is about time we stopped trying to press him into a cultural commissar’s uniform, even if it does have a ‘braw’ thistle embroidered on its epaulettes.
James Meek (LRB, 11 July) is right to doubt whether GM crops should be supplied to the world's poorest countries. Africa is so vast and fertile that we don't need GM crops to increase yields or to enable us to use marginal land. We need better governance and fewer wars. We need more private investment of the sort that, to give a small example, currently enables Kenyan peasants to grow organic vegetables for European supermarkets. We need access to international markets (a useful way for international donors to help my community of Wanderobo honey producers would be to help them – rather than our feckless Administration – to negotiate US or EU pest-control certification and make contact with Western buyers). We need reform of the Western policy which leads to the annual shipment of the subsidised GM grain harvest from North America to the Horn of Africa and the pretence that this amounts to a coherent strategy to tackle Africa's humanitarian crises.
Laikipia Plateau, Kenya
Alain Ehrenberg (Letters, 8 August) complains that one signatory of this letter, Philippe Pignarre, is the publisher of work by the other signatory, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, in order to imply that Borch-Jacobsen’s favourable review of Pignarre – and his unfavourable review of Ehrenberg – is tainted by nepotism. In the interest of full disclosure, we readily admit that we are both, along with Tobie Nathan, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, on the editorial board of Ethnopsy, a French journal that advocates a constructionist approach to mental illness and psychotropic drugs. ‘Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond’, a series edited by Philippe Pignarre at Editions du Seuil, was set up as an outlet for this group’s publications, and has translated into French works by authors sharing similar views, such as Ian Hacking and David Healy. All this is well known to Ehrenberg, which makes his imputation of review-fixing all the more contrived. Why not admit that if we publish and review each other, it is, quite simply, because we appreciate each other’s work?
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen & Philippe Pignarre
University of Washington, Seattle & Paris
Instancing the triumph in recent decades of a newly discovered baroque in my piece on Tovey’s writings on music (LRB, 8 August), I cited ‘above all, the Incoronazione di Monteverdi’. I didn’t mean what was actually printed – ‘Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea’ – in my (minority) view a dull work, highly overrated, and certainly not one which I’d choose to show as the culmination of a tendency.
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.