Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kamm reviews

I must admit I am feeling rather smug. I made a secret prediction to myself when I started to research and write my book. I told myself, with a certain amount of guilty pleasure: 'The "pro-war left" will not want to give this book any publicity at all. However, there are one or two historical controversies about which that crank Oliver Kamm will not be able to resist sticking his oar in. He will pad those observations out with sniffy comments about various spelling mistakes, and other errors, and then affect a haughty, contemptuous demeanour about the whole thing'. Kamm did not disappoint me. Here is his review. As it turns out, beyond vaguely resentful comments about a positive review I received from Gary Younge of The Guardian and The Nation, an ungainly attempt at an in-joke about the marxist lexicon ("the bourgeois superstructure of the repressive capitalist state"), and a comment about Islamophobia that the principle of charity compels me to attribute to stupidity, there is very little to engage with. So I will be concise.

There are three historical points that Kamm takes issue with. The first is on the topic of Srebrenica. Kamm asserts that my "account of Bosniak deaths at the hands of Serb forces in the early 1990s" "relies" on the work of Ed Herman and David Petersen. This is simply false. Though I cite these authors at one point, my main sources on deaths in the Bosnian war are Ewa Tabeau & Jakub Bijak, ‘War-related Deaths in the 1992–1995 Armed Conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Critique of Previous Estimates and Recent Results’, (European Journal of Population/ Revue europeenne de Demographie, Volume 21, Numbers 2-3, June 2005: 187-215), and the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre. Kamm's objection therefore cannot be to my relying on Herman and Petersen on this topic, because I did not, and he knows I did not. In fact, his objection appears to be that he doesn't like the conclusions that Herman draws about both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and therefore I shouldn't cite anything he has written. The trouble, then, is that the tabloid columnist doesn't understand that one can cite a source on one finding, or assessment, without necessarily assenting to anything else they say. For example, the majority of my sources, a large number which were scholarly books printed by university presses, drew conclusions that I didn't like about various topics. I cited them, nonetheless, despite their thought crimes. That fact that Kamm finds this improper says a lot about his intellectual disposition.

The second concerns my description of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's remarks on his role in preventing the United Nations from taking any measures that might frustrate American support for Indonesia's massacres in in East Timor. Moynihan described how he had been given the task of frustrating any measures then UN might undertake, bragging that he did so with considerable success. He also, elsewhere, described the effects of this success, namely the eventual murder of 10% of the population of East Timor. The issue is that I cited in my footnotes to this argument one Noam Chomsky. Kamm accuses Chomsky of, in some of his writing, misrepresenting Moynihan by running together two passages from his memoir, Dangerous Place, as if they were sequential even though they were from different parts of the book. Perhaps, but I did not do that, and in my cited source (Chomsky's preface to Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta's personal account of the Timorese genocide), Chomsky did not do that. The point I made, which is the most important point that Chomsky makes, is that whatever his rationalizations about preventing Chinese support for the Fretilin, Moynihan tacitly acknowledged the impact of his actions, which was to facilitate the massacre of 10% of the East Timorese population, a level of death he compares to that accomplished by what is sometimes called a 'totalitarian' regime, ie Nazi Germany. Notwithstanding this acknowledgment, whereby he identified himself as an accessory to a crime against humanity, he expressed some pride in what he was able to accomplish. Kamm's tortuous attempts to resist the obvious aside, the real issue appears to be not what I said, nor what I cited, but who I cited: namely, the man whom Kamm would have as his bête noire.

The third is on the topic of Hiroshima. I asserted in my book that the revisionist account of the Hiroshima bombing was the "current mainstream" among historians on the matter. Kamm asserts, citing the Boston-based social scientist Michael Kort, that it retains only "marginal support" among historians. Now, I am not so committed to my assertion that I will not consider revising it. After all, the theory began with "marginal" support, and its return to that status would in no way invalidate its essential conclusions. My assertion is based on the verdict of Samuel Walker, a chief historian of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who explained that "careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts" had answered all the critical questions and generated the conclusion that "the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan to end the war within a relatively short period of time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it." This was written well before Kort's text book (published in 2007), which I have not had the opportunity to read, and therefore may well be - must be, if Kort's description is right - out of date. Kort, to be sure, is a furious critic of the revisionists, a devotee of 'orthodox' (or rather, apologetic) accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima. Nonetheless, his assertion may be right, and I am happy to check it out.

As to petty errors, I somehow called 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern 'Eugene McGovern' (I probably awarded George the first name of Eugene McCarthy, another 1972 presidential candidate). I also mis-spelled Pierre Vidal-Naquet's name, intruding an unwanted 'c' between the 'a' and 'q', and left out a vital 'r' in François Mitterrand's surname. While I thank Oliver for his free sub-editing work, I should point out that the book is 344 pages long, including 75 pages of footnotes. If his aim was to undermine the book, the discovery of two spelling mistakes, one misnomer, one possibly legitimate dispute over who gets to be 'mainstream' on the topic of Hiroshima, and the contrivance of two spurious controversies over sourcing, looks decidedly flimsy. What is more, he only posted this in response to a positive review of my book that featured in The New Statesman. This was the good stuff, in other words, the material he was holding back. Awesome.