Comp Class

[Michael Robbins emailed us an argument against Charles O’Brien’s pro-war position in late February. He then made some slight additions to his note the next week. Mr. O’Brien had already responded to the first version of Mr. Robbins’ argument, but he’s added an addendum to that response that treats Mr. Robbins’ emendations. Mr. Robbins’ (3) “new” sentences and the one phrase he added after a dash are followed below by asterisks in order to clarify what O’Brien has focused on in his addendum.]


Last year, Charles O’Brien made it perfectly clear that the President’s Manichean view of the selective War on Terror should be the view of right-thinking Leftists everywhere. The United States did not “have it coming” – even if “have it coming” were construed not to mean that the U.S. deserved it, but that a backlash had long been predictable, given the U.S.’s flagrant disregard for the rights of just about any entity on the planet that did not serve its interests, financial or otherwise. To posit that perhaps what could be learned from 9/11 was, in part, that it is best not to bomb half the world and impose loopy Chicago-school market economics on the rest, was to Blame America First, to wake up next to Joan Didion, to have your hippy-dippy head in the sand. You were politely reminded that Usama bin Laden and crew do not give a shit about conditions in the Gaza Strip or Sao Paulo. Indeed, in a move straight out of Parteilehrjahr, the Left not only was to keep quiet about, say, Ashcroft’s illegal detentions, but was to be “the maximalist party of war,” a proposition one can treat only as one does the street preacher’s inquiry as to the status of your soul.

Now there are millions of people in the streets, across the world, protesting Bush’s always already delayed war on the people of Iraq, and this too has Charles O’Brien’s dander up–which is, in some ways, a good thing. He’s a fine polemicist, and his scalpel cuts through straw men as if they were made of straw. It helps, of course, that he likes all his ducks in a row, even if he has to glue feathers onto a few platypuses to get them there.

So once again O’Brien has surveyed the parade grounds and is relieved to report that they contain only nincompoops and Lewis Lapham. These are easily dispatched by a few snide remarks concerning the slogans, which don’t even rhyme, of “the Vichy left” (this phrase, like O’Brien’s clever placing of Palestinians in quotation marks, is meant to score big historical points–though last I checked, we hadn’t been invaded by Fascists and whatever you chose to call them, the Palestinians had actual grievances against the occupiers of their territories). Happily, as far as silly anti-war crowd-pleasers are concerned, O’Brien is clearly but trivially correct. “No Blood for Oil” would work a lot better if the war were principally–or even secondarily–about oil. (I’m not sure what’s wrong with “No War on Iraq” except that O’Brien thinks there should be one.) But I seem to recall that many of those who helped to shut down the obscene American slaughter in Indochina marched explicitly in support of the NLF, that rosy crowd, and their achieved socialist splendor. I seem to recall a lot of beads and hookahs, too, not to speak of the Jefferson Airplane. If idiots march against war, is marching against war an idiocy?

His other points are just as irrelevant to the question at issue, as we say in comp class. They are not arguments for war but arguments against arguments against it.* Whether the CIA counsels against going to war is really neither here nor there, though some have made much of it. Likewise, that there incontrovertibly are much more dangerous regimes than Saddam’s is not really important. The fact demonstrates American hypocrisy, since many of those regimes are armed to the molars by Uncle Yours Truly, but so do a lot of other facts. As for O’Brien’s not terribly apposite denunciations of Arab dictatorships, I missed the part where Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag openly call for the immediate institution of Sharia in Fort Wayne. So grant O’Brien his easy points: we can do without these arguments and slogans without strengthening the case for war.

O’Brien demolishes some easily demolished arguments against the war without presenting a convincing case for why the war on Iraq is necessary now–aside for some propositions we are meant to accept as a priori regarding the dubious threat Saddam poses to the peoples of the planet, almost all of whom strenuously oppose the war.* The issue should be what this war will cost, in human terms, versus what, in the same terms, it will save, and it would help to have an honest discussion of why this war is threatened in the first place. The first cost is at least estimable; the second is anyone’s guess. O’Brien likes to leave out the part where thousands–possibly hundreds of thousands–of Iraqi civilians die by fire, just as he likes to leave out the thousands of Afghan civilians killed while digesting their peanut butter sandwiches. He’s also rather shaky on just exactly how the systematic destabilization of one of the most unstable regions on the planet is supposed to make us safer. It’s a dangerous world, to be sure, and I wish I shared O’Brien’s weird confidence that our bombs will make it less so. I wish O’Brien would explain the miraculous process by which the U.S.’s utter historical disregard for democracy and freedom–do I really need to recite the weary list of countries our military and economic actions have reduced to virtual replicas of Kharkov in 1932?–will give way to constitutional conventions in post-Saddam Iraq. If Saddam is such a threat to the world, why aren’t his neighbors as worried as we are–indeed, why isn’t anyone, including the Iraqi people themselves?* Is O’Brien really so credulous as to accept the Bush administration’s repeated Orange Level calls to arms at face value? Some words about “American exceptionalism” would be in order here.

I would like not to leave out the three thousand. I would like to be on record opposing any totalitarian regime anywhere, while also reaffirming the rather pedestrian truism that a sovereign nation’s fate should be in the hands of its own people. I would like to, but O’Brien will accuse me of throat-clearing. We on the anti-war Left don’t really mourn those who fell, in flames, to their deaths, in Manhattan. Or we do, but we don’t think they count as much as ” ‘the Palestinians.’ ”

Likewise, we aren’t allowed to sincerely express outrage at the disgusting Baathists in Baghdad, because to do so is ipso facto to place ourselves in the war camp. Never mind that that outrage is perfectly compatible with a sober recognition that Saddam Hussein is not Hitler. He’s not even Suharto. Containment, inspections–hell, we can argue about what is to be done, and, as O’Brien rightly sees, not much will actually get done. There are no easy answers, and failure, a lot of the time, is assured. International law is victors’ justice, there’s no question. The U.N. is exactly as relevant as the U.S. wants it to be. Just tell me how the conversion of our current passive slaughter of the Iraqi people into active slaughter is going to make things better–explain, one more time, how it’s going to make the world less angry at us, less likely to want to see that movie again–the one from that Tuesday morning.

But it will be like cutting hot butter for Charles O’Brien to dismiss anything anyone who opposes the war has to say, whether they use dopey chants or substantive objections. O’Brien’s willing to bet other people’s lives that the threat from Islamic fundamentalism is so great that as many bombs as we can drop are needed, as fast as we can drop them, and never mind the niceties about civil liberties for Pakistanis who never turned toward Mecca in their lives. He’s tuned me out by this paragraph, you can be sure, so it won’t hurt to reveal that I read those anarcho-syndicalist journals he’s banned–you know, Harper’s, the LRB. (I also happen to believe John Leonard and Stuart Klawans are eminently readable stylists–what is wrong with this guy?) O’Brien slams the Left for not wanting to be disturbed, but it’s he who refuses to hear a discouraging word about the war. It is simply a fact, for him, that Baghdad’s slouching toward plutonium is far more dangerous than an administration that smashes up the world for profit and dominance (and it changes nothing to point out, correctly, that this is what American administrations have always done, not excepting those of Nobel Peace Laureates).* O’Brien’s certainties are unclouded by niggling questions of how many people have to die.

By Michael Robbins


Linger, briefly, over Mr. Robbins’ starting sentence. You can’t get there from here…

Last year

he writes. Actually, it was 2001. The hurt of reading it is, apparently, still fresh.

Charles O’Brien made it perfectly clear

I don’t know, but that “perfectly clear” looks suspicious: am I being compared to Richard Nixon? A first, if so, but it would be in keeping with Mr. Robbins’ fondness for stale thought and stale catch-phrases.

the President’s

Our situation is not just about George W. Bush. The Afghan war, the upcoming Iraqi war, and whichever follows are all genuinely, deeply popular.


A lazy word-choice. Anyway, in “The War,” the article Mr. Robbins is here referring to, I said – “perfectly clearly,” as I thought — that this would not be a war against evil.

views of the selective

Of course selective. Is Mr. Robbins insisting on universal war? (And see below, on the word “hypocrisy.”)

War on Terror

Like many others who support our current war, I find the idea of a war on “Terror” unhelpful. “The War” went a little further than most: an unkind eye might even regard it as a Praise of Terror.

should be the views of right thinking

No Mr. Robbins is the bien pensant.


An editorial point. The capital “L” Left should be reserved for the comfortable Left: Mr. Robbins’ mind-set. The small “l” left would be those not on the Right (or right) who see through that Left.


I didn’t, and don’t, have my hopes up.

It is an unfortunate first sentence. “The War” was a longish article, and even someone broadly sympathetic to its arguments could have found plenty to take issue with – and been right too. Mr. Robbins has stewed over this — over the past year or so he’s sent us emails complaining about my opinions — and now, afforded publication here, he starts his attack by imputing opinions to me that I expressly denied. If the rest of his letter doesn’t get much worse, it doesn’t get much better either.

The United States did not ‘have it coming’

The first half of this sentence succeeds, remarkably, in being both inartful and weasely. It’s a fair enough paraphrase of what I said. But what does he say? Is it offered as just a paraphrase? Mr. Robbins owes it to the reader to commit. He may say in propria persona that the United States, did not, in fact, have it coming — and then be counted among the “credulous.” Or he may say damn right we had it coming. He can’t have it both ways.

even if ‘having it coming” were construed not to mean that the U.S. deserved it

Is he Humpty Dumpty? “Deserving it” is what “having it coming” means: An unsurprising result is something else.

but that backlash had long been predictable.

Two points: first, “predictable” here is a greasy word. There has, of course, been lots of discussion about who failed to forestall 9/11 and of those few who came eerily close to foreseeing the very thing. What special insight does Michael Robbins have? What entitles him to say, not, for example, “might have been guessed ” or “could have been feared”, but had long been predicted? Who’s he like in the 3rd?

Second, is there a moral judgment here, or not? The words “backlash” and “predictable” feign detachment. The rest of the sentence shows the feigning up.

Given the U.S.’s flagrant disregard for the rights of just about any entity on the planet that did not serve its interests, financial or otherwise.

Chomsky lite. Never mind that each and every point is demonstrably false. Of course we deserved it. In this, we are like the Zionist settlers in Occupied Palestine. We are also like the Kaafirs of Sudan, the Copts of Egypt, the insufficiently devout of Algeria, the East Timorese, the Australians who helped them, the Hindus of Bali (and India), the Shi’a of Pakistan and of Afghanistan. In their case, as in ours, it’s all predictable backlash.

To posit

Mr. Robbins, in fact, means to pass off a dogma as a mere thought-experiment.

that perhaps

We’re asked to believe that Mr. Robbins is wrestling with this stuff.

what could be learned

And Mr. Robbins will be happy to walk us through it.

from 9/11 was, in part, that it is best not to bomb half the world

And that happened?

and impose loopy Chicago-school market economics on the rest.

Which seems likelier: that Mr. Robbins is speaking from any knowledge, real or theoretical, of how the world’s economies work, or that he knows “loopy Chicago-style market economics” as the designated villain? And does even he think that Usaama bin Laadin is an anti-capitalist?

was to Blame America First,

A phrase I have never used. I said that it is not what we did but what they did. It remains true.

to wake up next to Joan Didion,

I made no mention of Ms. Didion who is a perfectly respectable wife and mother. Mr. Robbins would have done better to find some other outlet for his pornographic fantasies.

to have your hippy-dippy head in the sand.

Again, not what I said. And “hippy-dippy”? Retro is one thing, but was this ever a current phrase? Also, had I said any such thing, it would not have been ended with a head “in the sand.”

You were politely told


that UBL and crew

You are merry, my lord.

Do not give a s____ about conditions in the Gaza Strip or Sao Paulo

About Sao Paulo, true. And will Mr. Robbins assert otherwise? “Gaza” is a more confused issue. People on Mr. Robbins’ side, i.e. those who oppose “regime change” in Iraq, said two things after September 11. Some said, this is really about Palestine. They did so because UBL’s main complaint, the presence of infidels — cowards and whores, he added — in the “holy land”, was too great an embarrassment. To have acknowledged it would have forced a condemnation without qualification of Holy Tuesday. It yielded no advantage. Better to go to item 3 or 4 on UBL’s list, to those exemplars of victimhood, the “Palestinians”. Suddenly, one could breathe easier.

Others (actually, sometimes the same people, a moment later) said that UBL had nothing to do with the Palestinians. It’s very like the never-heard-of him protestations you hear in celebrity scandals. In fact, insofar as Gaza is shorthand for Arab social suprematism, it is a cause dear to the hearts of UBL and the World Islamic Front.

Indeed, in a move straight out of Parteilehrjahr

“Move” is ungrammatical. “Straight out of”, as a rhetorical play, might as well be “literally.” And Parteilehrjahr, I suspect, occurred to Mr. Robbins while he was waiting to send the wine back.

The left not only was to keep quiet

Again, nothing I said. Talk, please, but please don’t lie and please try to make sense.

about, say, Ashcroft’s illegal detentions.

Which detentions, exactly? The Guantanamo interns and Jose Padilla are in Donald Rumsfeld’s custody. INS detainees? But the INS has detained aliens since long before John Aschcroft came along. John Lindh? He’s already taken a plea. Sami al-Arian, that stalwart of the Bush 2000 campaign in Florida? Who, said the owl, and so do I.

And how? How are these detentions illegal? The United States has won its cases in court. What does Mr. Robbins know? And how are these Ashcroft’s detentions. Personalizing issues has been of the main failings of the anti-war movement (cf. Mr. Robbins’ first sentence: “The President’s War”). Current policy is an extension of the Clinton administration’s policies. The USA Patriot Act passed congress overwhelmingly, mirroring overwhelming popular support (just as the Clinton-era Iraq Liberation Act passed the Senate without a single vote against).

but was to be the ‘maximalist party of war.’


A proposition one can treat only as one does the street preacher’s enquiry as to the status of your soul.

Actually a street preacher chosen at random will probably have a simplicity and goodness I ought to wish for, and an eloquence I will never have. Certainly, the average street preacher will not have a fraction of the certitude and self-righteousness of the average peace marcher. C’mon, will say, Mr. Robbins. I mean he’s a nutjob. (For Mr. Robbins, a social inferior, talking out of turn can’t be all there.) And naturally the natural response to a nutjob is a storm of emails culminating in a long published letter.

I will pass over Mr. Robbins’s second paragraph except to note two things. The first is the word “dander.” Mr. Robbins don’t know me, but “dander” isn’t something I do. And even a casual reading of “Blue Skies” would show that I was kinda amused. The second thing is this sentence:

He’s a fine polemicist, and his scalpel cuts through straw men as if they were made of straw.

Now Mr. Robbins can shove his praise, uh, “in the sand.” The praise is offered and immediately retracted: a pure waste of time. And what a retraction! Scalpels don’t cut through straw men. “His scalpel” is just a windier version of “he.” And “straw men as if they were made of straw”? Did he forget to point out that since these straw men are made of straw they can’t really be men, because men aren’t really made of straw?

No thanks, please, find somebody else to praise. Oh, and about the platypus. It is Mr. Robbins’ prose that is like a platypus. It never takes wing (worse, it won’t fly); it lays an egg; it is grotesque; and it belongs down under (in the sand).

In Mr. Robbins’s third paragraph: He claims that I find “only nincompoops and Lewis Lapham.” “Nicompoops” is not part of my vocabulary. To be wrong is not to be stupid. On the contrary, those who are wrong now have no excuse. Lewis Lapham, though (and he’s one of several names I threw out), Lewis Lapham is a great comic character, and I’m a little surprised that more people haven’t picked up on it.

Mr. Robbins complains of my “snide remarks.” If they were snide, reading him has scared me straight.

concerning the slogans, which don’t even rhyme

Since when do slogans have to rhyme? And what does “even” mean? If somebody else’s words don’t rhyme, how is that my fault?

of “the Vichy left.”

It is a phrase I’ve used once. Since Mr. Robbins brings it up, though, let’s stick with it. It’s still true.

This phrase, like O’Brien’s clever placing of Palestinians in quotation marks,

There was nothing clever about it. The premises of Palestinianism are false. Adopt, as you should, the phrase Arab irredentism, and we can forget the quotation marks.

is meant to score big historical points

Meant to do no such thing. Again, Mr. Robbins don’t know me. How is “Vichy,” a term about as arcane as “the usual suspects”, a “big historical point?” How is “Palestinians” a “historical point” at all? And are those “big historical points” the inspiration for Mr. Robbins’ own “Kharkov in 1932?”

though last I checked,

“Last I checked.” He couldn’t resist.

we hadn’t been invaded by Fascists

Is Mr. Robbins sure? Doesn’t he want Bush/Cheney to be Fascists who have taken us over? Sure?

But never mind what he wants…Wasn’t 9/11 some kind of invasion? And don’t its perpetrators qualify as “Fascists?” If it’s clear that “we hadn’t been invaded by Fascists,” was there a need to call the fact to my attention? Was that it all took to blow away my house of cards?

Suppose for a moment, though, that the parallel with Vichy was not meant to be exact in every respect. After Germany lost, many French collaborators — those who served as apologists for the enemy, who advanced the enemy’s cause — were able to save their lives by pleading the fact of occupation: They had actually done their countrymen some good. Mr. Robbins: what’s your excuse?

And whatever you chose to call them, the Palestinians

As if there was much doubt how Mr. Robbins would “choose.”

had actual grievances

On the scale of things, not really. And given the lazy river of lies from the Arab irredentist camp, the word “actual” is something of an embarrassment.


Against nobody, in fact. Rather, the world has some grievances against them.

the occupiers

“Occupied” has become the epithet that goes with “Palestine.” Two dactyls, and if only there were a hero, there’d be the makings of an epic. Is there no other place on earth under occupation? Land seized in a defensive war, with a victor eager to return the bulk of the land upon completion of a peace treaty is not to be called “occupied.” Almost all of Gaza and the West Bank is, in fact, under Arab administration. An Arab in Nablus may be robbed, tortured and killed by an official of the local authority with impunity, and that official will be an Arab.

of their

Translation: only they may live there. Jews must leave, and in the meantime are subject to indiscriminate killing. Even an Arab who sells land to a Jew should expect as PA policy, to be killed. Why should we argue over terminology? In American English, such a place is known not as Palestine or the Occupied Territories, but Klan Country.


Territories are found on maps. The war (arguably) for Palestine launched against Israel in 1967 concerned a patch of land that ran west from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean. From Jerusalem to the Jordan was Not Palestine. Today it is claimed that the old Palestine (east of Jerusalem) is the new Not Palestine. The new Palestine (east of Jerusalem) is the old Not Palestine. Land is hardly the issue. The issue is the belief most clearly embraced in the doctrines of the Ba’th Party: Arabs are incomparably superior to every other population on earth, and there is no limit to the violence that may be used against humanity.

Mr. Robbins takes up the matter of slogans. And here he shifts from misguided to disingenuous. I did not go out looking for the worst: no “Bush = Hitler” or “Send Perle and Wolfowitz”, or “Draft the Bush Twins”, nor, my favorite, “All Rational Americans Thank France, Germany.” (Mikey, was ‘at you?) “No Blood for Oil” appeared on pre-printed signs buttons, flyers, stickers. It was spoken the other day by Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, the leading anti-war Presidential candidates. It’s hardly marginal. And Not In Our Name, et. al., are major organizers of protests. I did not mention “No War,” “Peace”, or “No War In Iraq” because they are not arguments, only stakings of positions (like the different phone numbers the audiences are asked to use to express and opinion on interactive tv shows). What’s wrong with ‘No War On Iraq’, since he asks, is the word “on” (as opposed to “in”). In his second paragraph we found “Bush’s always already postponed war on the people of Iraq.” “On” is calumny. “Postponed” is — what’s it doing there? Is he complaining? “Always already” is a mindless academic flourish. And again, it is not Bush’s war: it is ours.

Mr. Robbins draws a parallel — not very apt – with the protests against the Vietnam War. I don’t know how old Mr. Robbins is. Either his memory is hazy, or he’s been misinformed. (In either case, let me recommend him the recent anthology edited by Paul Buhle and John McMillian, The New Left Revisited. Temple University Press. It’d leave anyone more addled than the brown acid would.) It’s not true that “many” marched in support of the NLF. Those that did just stood out more. And it was a curiosity of the time that as protests grew so did support for the war. The views that fueled the Movement were not the views that ended the more general public support for the war. Slogans — capsule arguments — were not unimportant. I note, in passing, that while anybody might have used terms like “obscene” and “slaughter”, it is so like Mr. Robbins to lay it on. Again, he couldn’t resist.

If idiots march against the war

Demonstrations are publicity. If “idiots” are your spokespeople, it’s Jackass without the panache. In the pages of The Nation, there’s been some concern about how the anti-war demos are looking. Mr. Robbins, for his part, “has surveyed the parade grounds” and found…idiots (his word, not mine; he affects a pose of superiority even towards those he likes) and “is relieved to report”: What, me worry?

is marching against war an idiocy

Marching “against war” is liking good good things, opposing bad things. One must look at a war, a political arrangement, a use of force, a refusal to use force. “Marching against war” is pre-political. It is innocent in the bad sense. It is an idiocy.

His other points are just as irrelevant to the question at issue.

The “question at issue” — a phrase that cries out for a red pen — was what I was writing about, not the article Mr. Robbins would have liked to write (and in his own inarticulate way, has written here). The subject was the arguments and central allegiances of the anti-war movement.

As we say in comp class

A confession:

Benjamin DeMott began reading me Mr. Robbins’ letter over the phone. I said that I would write something short, addressing the letter’s main points and overlooking its many provocations. Then I heard the words “comp class.” Having already stated that Mr. Robbins don’t know me. I must add this: No you di n’t, you di n’t do that.

Whether the CIA counsels against going to war is really neither here nor there.

One of my points.

though some have made much of it

Another of my points. What cannot be dismissed as “neither here nor there” is the fact that some have made much of it. It bespeaks desperation and dishonesty.

Likewise, that there incontrovertibly

I’m hear to controvert, as are many others. “Incontrovertibly” is bluster.

are much more dangerous regimes than Saddam’s is not really important.

That Mr. Robbins names not one is pretty important. And it would be fun to hear who he would name. (The United States would surely make his cut.)

The fact

Wholly unsubstantiated, not even identified.

demonstrates American hypocrisy

There are certainly inconsistencies in American foreign policy; and inconsistencies may constitute hypocrisy. But “may” is a foreign country to Mr. Robbins. With him, they are inevitably hypocrisy.

since many of those regimes


are armed to the molars

High style!, as taught in comp class.

by Uncle Yours Truly

Comp Class! But let’s not walk out of this comp class just yet. There’s a certain knowingness — a nice match for self-righteousness — that not everyone in the peace movement displays, but that a disturbing many do. Mr. Robbins got it bad, but he ain’t got it distinctive.

(Further, it’s not as if not arming people were the guaranteed moral course: the Spanish Civil War, the Biafra War, the 1991 intifada in Iraq, the wars in Yugoslavia.)

But so do a lot of other facts.

Cut from the same cloth.

as for O’Brien’s not terribly apposite denunciations of Arab dictatorships

Apposite to what, I wonder, just as I wonder whether he hasn’t confused me with Charles Keil, who did dwell on Arab dictatorships, as I did not. I mentioned then only to make the point that they were the local product, not an American imposition. Mr. Robbins, of course, will disagree, and Mr. Robbins will be wrong.

I missed the part

I get the flailing, I get the condescension. I missed the logical sequence between the two halves of the sentence.

where Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag openly call for the immediate institution of Sharia in Fort Wayne.

Although Chomsky and Sontag have mongered one indefensible opinion after another, I have had almost nothing to say about them. But leave it to Mr. Robbins to acquit of charges nobody ever preferred against them.

So grant O’Brien his easy points:

Easy, I found them to be. Facile, he must prove, and he can’t.

we can do without these arguments and slogans without strengthening the case for war.

What we say, in other words, is of no importance. I was careful in “Blue Skies” to distinguish between the bulk of the anti-war movement and a David Duke. I stand corrected. Since reasons don’t count for Mr. Robbins. David Duke shall be his brother

The issue should be what this war will cost in human terms.

By “human terms,” he means lives, not money. Mr. Robbins is comfortable. The old-fashioned phrase is “blood and treasure.” Both are human terms.

What will be the cost and what will it save, he wonders. He wants “an honest discussion [Leaving so soon, Mr. Robbins?] of why this war is threatened [sic] in the first place.” There’s a good phrase in circulation: “draining the swamp.” I would say it is to break the world that produced 9/11. Mr. Robbins wants numbers. I don’t know because nobody does (even if Mr. Robbins will gamely offer them).

O’Brien likes to

An odd locution. (And again, he don’t know me, or what I like.)

leave out

I wrote what I wanted, not what he wanted. And the charge of dishonesty is itself dishonest.

the part where


thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians die by fire.

A thing that nobody knows. But here are four things that seem knowable:

First, most Iraqi civilians that die will die at the hands of the Iraqi state.

Second, enforcement of the no-fly zones (“bombing half the world”) entails, I expect, dozens of Iraqi deaths. The number of civilian deaths is probably close to zero. If that enforcement ceased today, with a firm commitment not to renew it, I would expect then to see hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

Third, precision weapons do appear to work pretty well. Mr. Robbins probably has some silly argument on this point. The noteworthy thing, though, is that he didn’t think to mention them (or, he likes to leave out the part where…)

Fourth, there is a lot of indication that Iraq intends to inflict mass civilian casualties outside Iraq. It is telling that Mr. Robbins finds the matter, as a “cost, in human terms” of the war not even worth a denial.

Just as he likes to leave out the thousands of Afghan civilians killed while digesting their peanut butter sandwiches.

That thousands of Afghan civilians were killed by the United States is a Wahhabite lie long since discredited. Mr. Robbins, of course, propagates it and more, conflates with another Vichy-left complaint: that peanut butter was being dropped to Afghans who might be allergic to it. (People with allergies know about them. A disciplined American 5-year old can manage something that would baffle an adult Afghan. Such is the opinion of Mr. Robbins, citizen of the world.) It was important to the Vichy Left that Afghan casualties exceed those of 9-11. No problem. Saying it would make it so. So, in Mr. Robbins’s view the provision of food to a people reduced to famine is a grosser atrocity than the attempted murder of tens of thousands in a single spot in a single hour. With such a highly developed moral sense, I can’t compete. So arch, so angelic, Michael, you were well named.

On the subject of stability, I will refer Mr. Robbins to the writings of Col. Ralph Peters, more educational, I’m guessing, than that comp class. Mr. Robbins wonders about my “weird confidence.” See, bombs blow things up, and blow people up. Figure out what you want first. Got it?

I wish O’Brien would explain

Well, no he doesn’t. A rhetorical flourish and an untruth, where there’s more than enough of both.

The miraculous process by which the U.S.’s utter historical disregard for freedom and democracy will give way to constitutional conventions in post-Saddam Iraq.

But of course, it is not as if there had never been a constitutional convention in the aftermath of an American military presence or during it. Take the Philippines, for example — a constitutional republic. American troops were introduced there in the War of 1898, in World War II, in the current war. You may — unjustifiably — regard all three as great crimes. What you may not do is refuse to differentiate them, to evaluate each one. For Mr. Robbins it’s all just “the U.S.’s utter [sic] disregard for freedom and democracy.” The miraculous process that leads from Mr. Robbins’s affirmative falsehood to his denial of plain facts does not exist. That’s true. But how a place goes from military to civilian administration has nothing to do with miracles.

Do I really need to recite the weary list?

Oh no, please. Mr. Robbins is not only weary in himself, but a cause of weariness in others.

If Saddam is such a threat to the world, why aren’t his neighbors as worried as we are?

Try this: If al-qaa’ida was such a threat to the world, why weren’t Pakistan and Iran so worried? As to Sadaam, he isn’t just a threat to the world, he’s a threat to us specifically: we’re the ones to beat, the population to exterminate. As to his neighbors, they don’t want to be part of a war he survives. But Israel, Iran, and Kuwait, for three, would be glad to see the last of him. He’s bombed Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey would see his violent ouster as a mixed blessing, but in each case the motives are very bad ones.

Is O’Brien really so credulous as to accept the Bush administration’s repeated Orange Level calls to arms at face value?

I’m credulous enough to think that the color levels do correspond to some actual information. But I’m not so credulous as to think that the whole system has been entirely worked out; nor that these are “calls to arms” (“Remember after 9-11 being told to go shopping.”); nor that it is all a plot, as the words “face value” imply.

Some words about “American exceptionalism” would be in order here.

Well not from me, because I don’t believe in it, and not from him, because, by now, the moment’s passed.

Mr. Robbins’ next paragraph is a little museum of his bona fides. We can do the quick tour and move on. Let’s pause at one exhibit, though: his “reaffirming the rather pedestrian truism that a sovereign nation’s state should be in the hands of its own people.” “Pedestrian” is far from an objectionable word in this context. As John Hanson used to say on Talk Soup, “You said a mouthful, brother!” “Truism” is another mouthful. A truism is a fossilized truth, that is, not a truth at all. It is one of Chomsky’s pet terms. In Chomskyspeak, it means, “Any moron knows this,” and it also allows assertions to take the place of argument. This appeal to the “sovereign nation” is a little dubious too. Iraq is about as old as the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia. The future of Iraq is very much up in the air, and people inside and outside the country care passionately about that future. Mr Robbins isn’t interested. Things are fine as they are. The assertion that “a nation’s fate should be in the hands of its own people” bumps into the fact of an utterly ruthless police/military state apparatus. There’s a simple American English translation for Mr. Robbins’ “truism”: You’re on your own.

And Mr. Robbins’ following paragraph is pretty extraordinary. It starts off with some cant about what “we aren’t allowed” to do. John Ashcroft’s name can’t be far off nor can the notion that disagreement with Mr. Robbins’ opinions constitutes censorship, nor is an unhealthy dose of self-congratulation on his own bravery. Mr. Robbins is “allowed.” Mr. Robbins is being published. And published, he concedes that containment, inspections, international law, and the U.N. are all futile. He might have said so up front.

Mr. Robbins offers that “Saddam is not Hitler.” What is at issue after September 11 is potentialities. Hitler newly in office is not Germany rearmed; 1933 is not 1939. Hitler, early on, is “not Hitler.” Italy was, initially, the senior Fascist partner. Hitler was not even Mussolini. Actual weaponry, the technological facts of the last more than half a century are important and are unsurprisingly, quite absent from Mr. Robbins’ account. The worst that the Freikorps could have done to us was fly a bi-plane into the Woolworth Building. That world no longer exists.

This one does: Iraq’s armies could have won World War II. What mischief they may do, it’s better not to find out. It’s better to destroy the Iraqi state, whose existence, in any case, cannot be justified.

And as long as Hitler’s name is here, let’s go back to Mr. Robbins’ earlier question,

If Sadaam is such a threat to the world, why aren’t his neighbors as worried as we are?

Let’s look at Europe on the brink of the war. Germany had by plebiscite, swallowed Austria. Czechoslovakia had yielded without a shot. The USSR was an ally and Italy was another. Hungary and Spain were cordial neighbors of Germany. Switzerland and Sweden were sweetheart-neutrals. Belgium had come calling with a pledge of neutrality. Chamberlain’s England and Daladier’s France were happy to make concessions. There were large fascist movements throughout Europe; and appeasement was a word without negative connotations. If Hitler was such a threat to the world, why weren’t his neighbors worried?

On examination, and especially taking military means into account, it might make more sense to say that Hitler was not Sadaam.

As to Suharto: Mr. Robbins hasn’t been paying attention. Since Bali, his side has been usefully quiet about Indonesia.

International law is victors’ justice, there’s no question

That is grossly unfair to, for instance, the Nuremberg proceedings. Mr. Robbins should look into the cases of say, Karl Doenitz or Arthur Seyss-Inquart to see how far from simple victors’ justice those proceedings were. My point about international law was just that court documents have not banished force from the world. That’s still true.

The U.N. is exactly as relevant as the U.S. wants it to be.

Well, yes, and the logical consequence of the fact should be acknowledged, too. But let’s stop for a minute. Different things can be said about these two subjects, international law and the U.N. Of international law, I only said it won’t do what the anti-war movement claims it will. About the U.N., I said it isn’t a world government. Neither international law nor the U.N. extinguishes sovereignty, and neither is an obstacle to war with Iraq. But neither, their limitations acknowledged, is without value. I said no more than that.

Mr. Robbins thinks otherwise. Although international law, in fact, has mainly to do with stuff that isn’t sexy (postal conventions, copyright, maritime issues, a Law of the Moon), but for him it is no more than “victor’s justice” (a phrase which, by the way, is the unadorned Nazi attack on the Nuremberg proceedings). “International law,” for Mr. Robbins is just another name for American criminality.

Similarly, he’s willing to concede the failings of the U.N. — which I attributed to the basic design of the institution — only if the concession can be used to further condemn the United States (which for all its power in the world is quite weak in the U.N.).

Just tell me how the conversion of our current passive slaughter

The mechanisms are in place to provide food and medicine throughout Iraq. In those areas, where our arms prevail, the people have access to food and medicines. In those areas where Ba’thite arms prevail, the people are denied them. It is not “our” slaughter at all. It is entirely theirs. “Passive slaughter” is a troublesome phrase: he might want to rethink it, or better, think it. And “slaughter”? Melodrama is not conducive to reasoned discourse.

of the Iraqi people into active slaughter.

The “active slaughter” will be aimed at the military/police/governmental/party apparatus: not at the Iraqi people, but at their most implacable enemies.

is going to make things better

Here’s how. A sanctions regime is felt by civilians. The autocrats are insulated. Massive, rapid violence kills the autocrats. No more point to sanctions, no more sanctions.

explain, one more time, how it’s going to make the world less angry at us.

First, let’s work on this word “angry.” It’s like the “having it coming” business up above. Let’s ask who has the right to be angry if we invade Iraq. I would say: nobody. If they’re angry and wrong, they may (a) sulk, or (b) act on that anger, in which case we will of course be obliged to kill them. Anyway, “angry”, isn’t the issue. Islamist groups and Arab states target the weak. They’re not “angry.” The attack on Manhattan was rooted in the expectation that it would receive a response of Justice, Not Revenge: A Just Response, in other words; no response, in other words.

less likely to want to see that movie again

Anybody may cheer, rightly or wrongly, another’s defeat, military or political. Such cheering, even if wrong, is tolerable. Anybody may be indifferent to the suffering of the innocent: not good, obviously, but, obviously, tolerable. When the deaths of thousands of innocents are cheered, it’s something else again. Mr. Robbins wonders what we must do to please these people. How do we put smiles on their faces? Well, we’ve seen how: by dying, as horribly as possible, and in great numbers. Their feelings are relevant only to their own condemnation.

There is a telling omission here. Others have argued (invalidly to be sure) that a war in Iraq will increase terrorism. The use of the word “terrorism” would suggest innocent deaths here. Mr. Rollins will have none of it. He speaks of “anger.” The moral onus “always already” on the United States and nothing will be allowed to shift it.

And now, Mr. Robbins’ final paragraph. He complains that I will dismiss “anything” – “dopey chants” or “substantive objections.” I’ve dismissed a lot, but nothing a priori. “Dopey chants” may not comprehend one side of a debate, but the “chants”, “dopey” or not, of a movement, do set forth its positions. How is comment on them (comment, moreover, that hasn’t gone cherry-picking) unfair?

And substantive objections? He’s conceded half, and the rest, there’s nothing to them.

O’Brien’s willing to bet other people’s lives

Yes and no. Let’s do no first.

I used to come upstairs from the E-train at the World Trade Center at about 9:10 three mornings a week. I wasn’t there that day, but I did see it from the Harlem River. And I ride the subways every day, those subways that are prime target of our enemies. I think it entirely possible that most of the casualties of the coming war will be not Iraqi civilians, or American military personnel (for whom Mr. Robbins does not anywhere express a word of concern), but American civilians. If such happens, I find it hard to imagine that Manhattan will be passed over. So, no. I may be killed. ‘S all good.

But also, yes. I am willing to bet other people’s lives. We’re all somebody’s survivors. Innocent people are killed every day around the world. And to some portion or other of those deaths, everybody consents. I consent to the deaths, unavoidable, of Afghan civilians. Fewer than a thousand were killed. What would have been the cost of continued Wahhabite rule, or of a civil war that eventually, after years, turned out the Taliban? I consent to those fewer than a thousand deaths. I consent to the deaths of Iraqi civilians implicit in the projected war. I expect the toll to be low. But I consent. On Judgment Day, I will have to plead guilty, with an explanation. I hope the explanation’s a good one. I’ve seen no arguments to make me think it isn’t. That’s me.

He speaks of “one of the most unstable regions on the planet.” He means: keep the abattoir running. Mr. Robbins is no less guilty than I, but he will lie about it. And his explanation? Such an opportunity, an opportunity to preen, couldn’t be passed up; and besides, he was only saying what everybody he knew was saying.

I don’t quite get his point about Pakistan, but if it helps, I regard Pakistan as a state of doubtful legitimacy, and I think the United States should consider a mutual defense treaty with India.

He’s tuned me out by this paragraph, you can be sure.

“You can be sure” of this: Mr. Robbins’ assurances are Monopoly money. Tuned him out! He has my undivided attention.

I read those anarcho-syndicalist journals he’s banned

Anarcho-syndicalist? He reads Harpers and he feels pretty frisky doing it. And banned? Who, me and John Ashcroft?

I also happen to believe John Leonard and Stewart Klawans are eminently readable stylists.

No, no, John Leonard’s the unreadable one — and an obvious literary influence on Mr. Robbins. Klawans is readable (not “eminently” readable, which is an entry in the Big Book of Reflex Adverbs) but tedious, particularly given his subject, and his arid surroundings. Put it this way: readable, but if the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jacks box turned out to be a review by Klawans, most people — although, granted, not Michael Robbins — would feel a little let down.

What is wrong with this guy?!

Too good! He’s laid all kinds of depravity at my door and made clear my complicity in mass murder. But elsewhere the itals are reserved for titles, foreign words, implied quotation. Only here are they used for emphasis – and a ?! for good measure. Here’s what really matters to him: nobody disrespects John Leonard.

O’Brien slams the Left for not wanting to be disturbed.

Mr. Robbins’ feathers aren’t ruffled, sure enough.

but it’s he who refuses to hear a discouraging word about the war.

Refuses? We’re publishing him. (Please contrast the range of debate in Harpers or LRB, or that House of Style, The Nation.) (Also: Home, home on the Range? What’s wrong with this guy?)

His certainties are unclouded

This, from somebody who doesn’t need arguments to know he’s right.

niggling questions

Unsupported assertions, rather, and in a discussion that I invited.

of how may people have to die.

There will be a war soon, or there won’t. If there is a war, the peace movement will have delayed it. It is part of the Iraqi state’s war plan to put Iraqi civilians in harm’s way. The delay will not so much give Iraqi arms a better chance against American arms. But it will lock the populace in the cross-hairs. That blood is on the peace movement’s hands.

Or there’ll be no war: meaning only, for now, since war is coming, sooner or later. Until then, if the American forces in the region stand down, it will be a tremendous victory for Sadaam, and all that he represents, in the region, in the world. September 11 will be recognized as the first great victory among many. And when war does eventually come; it will be all the more horrific. That blood, too, will be on the peace movement’s hands, and that will be enough to drown them.

Mr. Robbins is a representative figure. His claim, and his attitudes and prejudices are what’s out there. He repays study. “There’s a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow,” said Hamlet. Robbins, too, it turns out.

New York March 2, 2003

…I had already completed a response when Mr. Robbins sent in some late revisions. It’s even worse. His positions have hardened. His skull got thicker too.

They are not arguments for war,

He may feel that the point needed clarification, even if I thought it pretty plain already. Still, if he was worried that there was a single reader he had failed to condescend to, he’s probably right.

But again, if the “question at issue” were arguments for war, his letter should have been addressed to Kanan Makiya and Fred Smoler, who had made those arguments. I was mindful of Smoler’s article, in particular, which was written specifically for us (we printed the text of a talk Makiya gave elsewhere) and didn’t want to duplicate his points. I therefore wrote about something else.

but arguments against arguments against it.

…and for Sherlock Robbins, that puzzle is starting to come together. This phrase, I suspect, is the real justification for the added sentence. It shoots for a dialectical elegance, and it misses. Dialectic-talk courts befuddlement: doesn’t he mean the opposite? didn’t he just say that? is this a typo? The phrase “arguments against arguments” would have been fine, but hardly worth the detour. But “arguments against arguments against”, seeming hiccup, is more promising. A note can be suspended as chords change. The trick is all in the resolve. Had Mr. Robbins ended with anything weighty — but all it is is “it.” The reader is picked up — this oughta be good! — only to be dropped…nowhere you’d remember the name of.

There’s more here than stylistics, though. Logically, it’s true (and trivial, to use Mr. Robbins’ fancy term) that the disproof of one argument doesn’t prove a competing argument. But as a practical matter, it improves the competing argument’s chances, and such disproofs are how minds are changed — or at least the minds of those more credulous than Mr. Robbins’.

Aside from some propositions we are meant to accept a priori.

And in fact, while I didn’t set out to argue for the war, some arguments in favor certainly could be derived from what I wrote. None are a priori (unlike Mr. Robbins’ “marching against war”). And not all have to do with threat. A hypothetical Hitler killing only within Germany and an actual Milosevic killing only within Yugoslavia alike demand destruction. Mr. Robbins could do worse than look again at what I said about containment.

the dubious threat

Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Israel.

Sadaam poses to the peoples

“Peoples” is grandiloquence. But if he means that Fiji, say, is under no threat — and how can he know that? — it’s hardly the point. Hitler was a “dubious threat” to Fiji. He was a threat to others, as is Iraq. He was a threat to us, as is Iraq, and this appeal to the “peoples” is misdirection.

of the planet.

As I write, the dirt is saying, Look, you can’t pin this guy on us.

almost all of whom strenuously oppose the war.

First time out, Mr. Robbins spoke of the “millions in the streets, across the world protesting.” That there were billions not protesting doesn’t justify ignoring the millions who were. But not ignoring them means attending to what they were saying. Mr. Robbins insists that such an effort is wasted time. I disagree. At the very least, it’s been fun.

To him, only the numbers count, and they alone tell the story. And if “millions across the world” are good, then a strenuous “almost all of the peoples of the planet” are better. The existence of any contrary opinion will not be considered (street-preacher types excepted).

Indeed why isn’t anyone

Not even street-preachers, apparently. “Millions” are good. “Almost all” are better. Not anyone is best! Mr. Robbins said I had tuned him out. Does he listen to himself?

I observe up top, that Mr. Robbins, between the first version of his letter and its update seems to have spent several days becoming-what-one-is. And he’s excited! — so excited that he’s used itals for emphasis previously reserved for John Leonard. It makes his anyone a kind of Unknown Soldier, an Incarnation of Fearlessness (or at least of Not-that-worried). Just as John Leonard is an Incarnation of Cluelessness.

including the Iraqis themselves

Sure, and that explains Saddam’s 100% electoral victory.

It is simply a fact, for him, that Baghdad’s slouching toward

When clichés feel like kicking their shoes off and hollering, “Honey, I’m home!”, they head on over to Mr. Robbins’ place.


Nuclear weapons, no problem. If anyone wanted to know how heartfelt “our outrage at the disgusting Baathists in Baghdad,” which “we aren’t allowed to sincerely express,” here’s the answer. What got in the way of all that sincere expression was not me, but the insufficiencies of candor backed up in his mouth.

is far more dangerous

And Michael Robbins will vouch for the tameness and peaceful intent of even a nuclear Iraq.

than an administration that smashes up the world

What exactly, of the world, has been smashed up? Even Afghanistan has not been wrecked by the United States. Rather, it was made accessible to relief and reconstruction (with which the “peoples of the planet” have not come forward very much). And it is the Iraqi state, not George Bush, that proposes, for example, to destroy Iraq’s dams.

for profit

Mr. Robbins earlier disclaimed “No Blood for Oil.” Does even he know what he’s talking about?

and dominance

Dominance of a kind, sure, but not of a kind that can dictate even to Canada, a dominance that renders us Guinea’s spurned suitor.

and it changes nothing

Syntax. Comp class.

to point out, correctly

Comp class. “State, correctly” is ok. “Point out” implies the thing is real: “correctly” is superfluous. As factual matters, he is pointing out a phantom, and he is not correct.

That this is what American administrations have always done

Adams, Buchanan, Harding. It’s all mush.

not excepting those of Nobel Peace Laureates

Well, Jimmy Carter did preside over the destruction of two American military aircraft and a handful of American diplomatic outposts. Again, it’s all mush. And it seems ages now since Mr. Robbins was positing a perhaps. Something got Mr. Robbins open.

But morally, he’s foreclosed himself from marches “against war.” He has declared himself the maximalist party of war, war against that thing born bad, destructive all its days, that greatest of dangers to the peoples of the planet, the United States.

Aux armes, citoyen.

New York March 8, 2003

Great White “Lies”

June 19, 2003

Hi. When will O’Brien stop lying, I wonder? He downplays the looting of Iraqi (Assyrian) artifacts, accepting as unimpeachable the word of Donald Rumsfeld. He should read this article in the Guardian by British archaeologist Eleanor Robson, in which she carefully documents the massive extent of the damage done, the catastrophic cultural loss (she is specifically correcting the administration’s and Andrew Sullivan’s misrepresentations of the looting):,2763,979734,00.html

Michael Robbins

Against the Wind II

Hi he says. He’s back, or else, he never left. Like John Cleese in a barrister’s wig, he demands, “When will O’Brien stop lying?” Lying? If I have “accepted as unimpeachable” the word of Donald Rumsfeld; and if he has swooned over Eleanor Robson, if we believe these things, then wrong, deluded, willful might suit the case for either or both of us, but “lying” is no more than abuse. What I said, in my last article, (written May 9, Robson’s article was published June 18) about the Baghdad museum was that (a) the losses had been exaggerated; (b) that the thefts were largely an inside job; and (c) that Ba’thists were involved. But listen to Robson: filter out the noise, and listen closely. She very quietly concedes (a) and (b); and (c) – the B’ath Party – goes unaddressed, unmentioned even: in her political hackwork, politics must be ignored.

Two points before we do Robson:

  • Robbins makes a point of referring to “Iraqi (Assyrian) artifacts”, when I had used the word “antiquities.” In fact, the more generic term is the more accurate. Assyrian: the duh outweighs the pedantry. It is also in character that Robbins would use the word “Assyrian” so un-self-consciously. The word, as a live issue, should refer less to the Ba’th regime’s thefts than to the Assyrian minority that the genocidal Arab racism has striven to wipe out.
  • My information on the museum story comes from all over the place (including the Guardian). I’m not aware, though, that Mr. Rumsfeld addressed the question. I do remember – who doesn’t? – his asking how many vases there could be in Iraq. On TV, that sound bite played with a video clip of some potbellied character in a robe running down a walkway holding a potbellied vase. And, though Jed Perl in The New Republic was outraged, it was all superior entertainment.

Amid all the carping about the museum and the Department of Defense, two things get left out. First, an American soldier has been killed defending the Baghdad museum. Michael Robbins and Eleanor Robson are, of course, absolutely unimpressed. But think: if an American soldier had been killed guarding the Metropolitan Museum, wouldn’t we owe him or her gratitude? Second, Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, struck the Qadisiyya Saddaam monument in Baghdad from a list of bombing targets during Desert Storm. Aesthetic hypersensitivity, it was a dreadful mistake. Cheney, at home in homespun, not only didn’t know much about art, he didn’t even know what he liked. How much better to have had the baleful eye Courbet cast on the Vendome Column!

Robbins – anyway – recommends Eleanor Robson’s little article as the word on the subject. Clearly, as the original story melted down, and stayed melted down for a couple of months (and, in all truth, stays melted down today), it was the word he was waiting for. It “specifically corrects” Andrew Sullivan – although what of Andrew Sullivan he doesn’t say, and Sullivan’s name appears nowhere in the article. It is a “careful documentation,” he says. Multiple conflicting accounts of the whereabouts of allegedly “thousands” of items, which did not all leave the same way no go the same place, are “carefully documented” in an article that prints out at a full page and four lines on a second. It is just long enough and “careful” enough for what it is: a puff piece for the old regime.

Now Robson:

She asks: “What is the true extent of the losses to the Iraq Museum – 170,000 objects or only 33?” She never really does say, although the figure of hundreds of thousands that energized the story in its early days has quietly disappeared. Her highest figure now is one, offered by unnamed “expert assessors in Vienna [!]”), of 6,000 – 10,000; not observation, but speculation, and almost certainly, politically skewed speculation. But even her highest number – 10,000 – is (though she won’t say so) a lot closer to 33 than to (an already scaled-back) 170,000. Robson offers this background:

Two months ago [with no facts – none needed] I compared the demolition [sic] of Iraq’s [sic] cultural heritage with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1250, and the 5th century destruction of the library of Alexandria.

and continues, astonishingly,

On reflection that wasn’t a bad assessment.

Not bad, except that Baghdad this time, was almost untouched, and the Museum, unlike the library, reopened to the public two weeks after her article appeared. Or as she blithely offers

The worst did come.

Robson was catastrophically wrong. This article is her poor attempt at recovery. It’s also worth looking at the two comparisons she offers: one, a case where Arabs actually were victimized by another people, the other, something that happened before the sword descended on Egypt (although responsibility for the destruction of the library was later falsely claimed by the Mohammedans). When the Arabs came out of their own homeland, and came into the Levant, into Asia, into Africa, into Europe, they came not as curators but as conquerors. The destruction, of lives and of things, is today beyond calculation: an archipelago of 9/11’s. Robson had a wealth of atrocities to pick from. Robson’s choice was carefully sanitized to conform to the racial fantasies of the Ba’th Party.

Her major source for the story is Dony George. But Dony George is old news and bad news. Since April he has given multiple and inconsistent version of the museum story. Worse, he spent years as a major cultural functionary of the old regime. The junior staff at the museum would like him tried. He is, by most accounts (not Robson’s) more suitable for hanging than anything in his collection. Robson can explain the junior staff, though: “It is post-Ba’athist reaction [sic].” They are:

testing their newfound freedom to complain about their bosses. One insider commented: ‘George might make them work instead of read papers. And that is what all the fuss is about[!]’

In a fully functioning museum, the junior staff sit and read newspapers. In a museum laid waste, they have no end of work. It is pleasant to see the aversion to rationality and the aversion to democracy dovetail so nicely.

She also quotes a Nabil al-Tikriti. Mr. Al-Tikriti may be a fine man, and he shouldn’t be judged by his name. But the name al-Tikriti is a fraught one. A more careful advocate than Robson would have stricken it from the witness list. A more careful writer would have paused to explain. For Robson, there’s no problem. She’s preaching to the choir, to her little coalition of the willing-to-believe-anything, to the guild of the gulled. Not much of a story: suppose American troops had been posted at the museum. If Iraqi thieves were shot, the Americans would be branded murderers. If Iraqi thieves were arrested, there would have been demands for their release. If bullets or shells fired at American troops damaged the museum, blame would have been assigned to the United States. The Arab media, which is often claimed to be beyond epistemological challenge, insisted that the war was motivated by an American desire for plunder. Plunder of oil, of course, with no evidence offered, and as if the oil industry in Iraq (and in every Arab country, and in Iran) were not the fruit of, exclusively, Western knowledge, effort, and investments. But anything could be plundered, including, and especially – and this claim actually was made – Iraqi dinars. Here is what passes for political analysis in Araby: The Bush Administration’s spent billions of dollars on a war to depose Saddam Hussayn al-Tikriti in order to let individual American soldiers stuff instantly devalued currency into their pockets, confetti with an ugly mug on it.

In fact, American soldiers being rotated out of Iraq have been threatened with court martial if they are found with large Iraqi bills, which they regard, rightfully, as souvenirs rather than as actual money.

Robson also writes that Fedayeen Saddam broke into a storeroom and set up a machine gun at a window. She might have noted that such an action was a war crime – and that such crimes were the core of Saddam’s war strategy. Unsurprisingly, she did no such thing. She might also have said that it was not a case of “a machine gun.” The museum was heavily fortified and the scene of a major battle. (Robbins might take a look at Roger Atwood’s article in Art News.)

At the end of Robson’s article she is identified as “a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.” That is, she is a collaborationist with the Ba’th regime and a colleague of Tom Paulin and Andrew Wilkie. Her article is another line on that resume.

Before the invasion of Iraq, Michael Robbins predicted all kinds of calamity. Specifically, he predicted “thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands” of civilian deaths. It didn’t pan out. Along came the museum story. It would have to do. It offered hundreds of thousands – or at least thousands – or anyway, a handful – of vanished objets d’art. Not much of a story, but something. Not much of a story: The damage done to Berlin in 1945 is, after all, not an argument for leaving the Nazis in power. Not much of a story: The Americans, after all, didn’t loot the museum. Ah, but they “let it happen.” That is, they failed to “protect” a building that was pouring ordinance at them. That is, they, and not the Iraqis who either deserted the building or failed to defend it, who bear sole responsibility for the damage done. That is, American forces had nothing else to do in the middle of a war.

Not much of a story: who would have thought that so many in the anti-war movement were so emotionally invested in Mesopotamian antiquities? In love with shards? Break the Warka Vase and you break my heart. How did they even know what was in the museum?

Robbins the Aesthete has had plenty of opportunity to deplore, for instance, the Taliban’s rather aggressive philistinism. He didn’t bite. But then he couldn’t, just as he wasn’t “allowed to sincerely express outrage at the disgusting Baathists in Baghdad” (disgusting, like an overly sweet desert: too much of a good thing).

Not much of a story. And as time went on, less and less. Eleanor Robson must have looked like a savior. Sorry.

Prediction’s risky. If Michael Robbins prognosticated wrong and missed his big story, he can be forgiven: there was nothing there. I too missed a story. Before the invasion, the world (on its unworried way to Saying No to War) knew that Iraq was marbled with mass graves. And the world knew of at least one prison reserved for child prisoners. What I, at least, didn’t guess was that there would be found mass graves reserved for executed children. In his last letter here, Michael Robbins laid down this principle:

A sovereign nation’s fate should be in the hands of its own people.

The children in those graves were too young to know that a sovereign nation’s fate was properly in their hands. Instead, they held dolls, museum-worthy dolls. A war crimes museum, recording the Ba’th legacy, has newly opened in Salaimaniya. There will be others. If it’s any consolation to Michael Robbins, there will be no shortage of exhibits.

July 17, 2003


First of the Month welcomes correspondence from readers.



Reality Bites

Paul Berman tells some pretty good stories, but you have to wait for the punch line. No one will be astonished to learn that Breyten Breytenbach, the celebrated South African novelist and homme de gauche, last year published (in Le Monde) an open letter to Sharon, and began with the now-rote observation that when any criticism of Israeli policy is vilified as anti-Semitism, free speech is imperiled. You may be mildly surprised to learn that Breytenbach thinks the Israelis, a people with a notorious tin ear for the way they sound to foreigners, are nonetheless manipulating American public opinion with fantastic success. But read on in the Breytenbach letter, and you will be diverted to learn that the “used-car salesman doppelganger, Netanyahu, ploys this craft of crude propaganda more openly, as if he were a dirty finger tweaking the clitoris of a swooning American public opinion.” While this sort of language does evoke the bad old days, one can look on the bright side: Breytenbach’s trope arguably bolsters the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Even sixty years ago, few people implied that assimilationist Jewish fingers, however dirty they might be when probing and manipulating literal or metaphorical gentile women, were also prehensile. As for Zionists–uniquely blessed with the ability to tweak things with a single finger–well, who knew?

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The Politics of Patience

Wesley Hogan’s “Many Minds, One Heart” (Duke University Dissertation, 2000) stands as the freshest work on the Civil Rights Movement since Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom. Hogan’s dissertation is both a painstaking piece of scholarship and an urgent message to the grassroots.

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Inside the Whale

Kanan Makiya–author of “Republic of Fear” and “Cruelty and Silence”–spoke about the future of Iraq on a panel organized by NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program and the Center for War, Peace and the News Media on November 22, 2002. Arguing against other speakers at the forum, Makiya made a moral case for American intervention in the course of explaining recent developments in the relationship between the Bush administration and Iraqi dissidents. An edited version of his remarks follows along with an exchange between Makiya and Mansour Farhang (who was Iranian ambassador to the UN until he was forced to flee Iran after the fall of the Bani-Sadir government in 1981).

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Safe American Home

Drive-By Truckers’ new double CD Southern Rock Opera is the most daring and developed expression of rock and roll attitude since the Clash’s Sandinista. The subject of the Truckers’ Opera is the “duality” – their word – of life in the land where blues began.

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In My Lonely Room

The following thought experiment was inspired, or provoked, by this year’s art scandale, the “Mirroring Evil” exhibit that opened at the Jewish Museum in March; and in particular by Roee Rosen’s installation, which invites us to imagine that we are Eva Braun having a last night of sex with Adolf Hitler:

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A Palestinian Gandhi

We asked George Lakey – a longtime proponent of nonviolent direct action – to interview Mubarak Awad – a Palestinian Christian psychologist who organized a nonviolent resistance movement against occupation of Palestinian lands at the end of the 1980’s. Israel expelled him to the United States where he currently runs an NGO based in Washington D.C. – Nonviolence International.

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Al Is Conscience and Tendre Hearte

A couple of days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a number of NYU students were wearing white ribbons in solidarity with the dead firemen. A friend who teaches there was fascinated to see undergraduates singing “God Bless America” in Washington Square Park, a spectacle she could not have imagined forty-eight hours before. Maybe it helped to be able to smell the fires that were still consuming the dead – you could do this from Washington Square Park. At approximately the same time, at a college a bit over the city line, where the dead could neither be smelt nor, perhaps, fully imagined, white ribbons instead signaled solidarity with those “faculty and students of color” who felt unsafe in the face of American racist violence.

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